Freezer Culture

You don't need religion for life after death -- just $35,000 and a taste for liquid nitrogen.

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When Robert Ettinger froze his mother’s body in 1977, she became the Cryonics Institute’s first customer. Last year he froze his wife too, cooling her body to minus 196 degrees Celsius and storing it in an insulated tank of liquid nitrogen. For $35,000 Ettinger and his attentive staff will provide the same service for anyone. “Dead people don’t have much fun,” says Ettinger, the 82-year-old founder of the Cryonics

Institute. “It’s not a question of whether you’re happy now,” he says. “I think in the future it’s going to be better, not worse.” Twenty miles northeast of Detroit, the institute sits atop a small patch of grass, backed by a screen of trees, squat and unremarkable. Few would guess from its drab exterior that it houses the bodies of 38 customers frozen and suspended in liquid nitrogen. Even fewer would guess that seven dogs and nine cats, equally frozen, are keeping them company. But since opening the institute almost 25 years ago,

Ettinger has seen membership grow steadily, and his team is performing more suspensions now than at any other time. “In recent years we’ve been getting maybe three or four a year, I guess,” he says. Ettinger, like his patients and their pets, is waiting for the day they can all be revived. In much the same way as drowning patients can be resuscitated after long periods without breathing,

Ettinger believes researchers will find a way to reverse the tissue damage that accompanies long-term freezing, allowing his customers to be resuscitated too. Until then, their bodies will remain submerged, or “suspended,” in liquid nitrogen, in vast containers called cryostats, the largest of which is capable of storing up to 16 bodies at once. With an eye toward the future, the folks at the institute are aware that the bodies they freeze must be in the best shape possible. In other words, they must be fresh and, to minimize tissue breakdown, the initial phases of suspension must be performed in the minutes immediately after a patient is declared dead. “We can have people on the spot if we know ahead of time,”



Ettinger says. The sooner after death the process is begun, the more likely it is to be successful, he says. When his wife died last year, technicians were standing by to begin her suspension immediately. “There were only seconds lost,” he says. Immediately after death, a flurry of activity begins as technicians rush to prepare the patient’s body for cooling and suspension. The body is stripped of any clothing and an anticoagulant solution is injected via either the femoral or the carotid artery. Pumped around the patient’s circulatory system, this solution prevents the blood from clotting and causing ischemic tissue damage.

Technicians cool the body with cold packs while transporting it to the institute’s fully equipped laboratories. Blood pressure and acidity are measured constantly, while a device for heart/lung resuscitation maintains vascular flow, pushing anticoagulant around the body, looping through arteries, veins and capillaries to permeate the brain. Once body temperature is stabilized at 16 degrees Celsius, the patient’s blood is thoroughly washed out with buffered physiological saline, which also contains mannitol to prevent fluid migration from the rapidly cooling cells.

Finally, after the patient’s blood is removed and disposed of, the body is suffused with a glycerine-based cryoprotectant solution that protects the tissues from freezing damage, and then it is slowly cooled again using cold carbon dioxide vapors. After it reaches dry ice temperatures, the body is cooled further to minus 196 degrees Celsius, which arrests further degradation or decomposition.

Christopher Kemp is a writer in Cincinnati.

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