In the movie "Vanilla Sky" the main character, David Ames, played by Tom Cruise, commits suicide after signing a contract with a company that will place his body into a cryogenically frozen state. Ames's hope is that there will come a future in which he could be raised from the dead to continue a better life thanks to medical advancements that would be able to restore his face and fix other severe and crippling injuries he suffered in an earlier car accident.
The storyline of the movie follows events after the accident, which in the end turns out to be a dream, part of his 'lucid dream' state of cryogenic awareness. The story is of course entirely fictional, but the subject fueled a long conversation between a friend and I for an entire evening.
I contended that if such a thing were indeed possible, it would be a terrifying experiment with unthinkable possibilities. I believe, like most, that when you die and the electrical activity in your body ceases to exist, you are dead and nothing aside a miracle by God himself could bring you back to life. I believe that at this stage your soul departs the flesh and blood and ascends to another state, which I suppose would be heaven (or maybe hell?).
The conversation my friend and I had centered around the possibility of what might happen if science were able to thaw out a cryogenically frozen human being who had previously died, then bring that person back to the land of the living. Assuming their soul has long since departed, would that person be able to re-exist in any way, or would the absence of their soul mean that they were now simply a warm and soggy dead person?
If they could be raised, would this disprove the theory of the 'soul' in the first place? Or how about the possibility that the person would be alive except no longer with the soul that was the essence of who they once were. The data in the brain might still be there, but the morals and conscience of that person could be gone for good, leaving them as simply a being with no real sense of right or wrong.
Another possibility we discussed was that maybe that person would be wrenched back from heaven or hell, a quite ludicrous and disturbing possibility. While it might be fortunate to be rescued from eternity if eternity was hell, what if eternity was heaven? Surely to even contemplate messing around with such a thing is a fool's game? Surely tampering in a realm that no amount of exploration could ever fully explain is at the very least an indulgent waste of time and, at worst, a grave mistake?
However, even though hardly any doctor gives the subject of cryonics any merit, there are still foundations and companies that specialize in placing humans into cryogenically frozen states, in much the same way that Ames was frozen in "Vanilla Sky."
The Cryonics Institute in Michigan (formerly known as The Immortalist Society) specializes in 'life extension' with the tag line, "Your Last Best Chance For Life--and Your Family's." According to the institute's website, for a mere $28,000 you are as soon as possible after legal death prepared and cooled to a temperature where physical decay essentially stops. You are then maintained indefinitely in cryostasis. They go on to say, "When and if future medical technology allows, our member patients hope to be healed and revived, and awaken to extended life in youthful good health."
Indeed, the institute's website even goes so far as to offer some practical advice to the relatives of anyone who has recently died and needs to be cryogenically frozen:
"IF THE PERSON HAS ALREADY DIED, COOL HIS OR HER HEAD IMMEDIATELY. PLACE ICE CUBES, OR CRUSHED ICE, OR WATER ICE, IN A PLASTIC BAG, AND COMPLETELY COVER THE FRONT, TOP, BACK AND SIDES OF THE PERSON'S HEAD."
A cheaper option might be to turn to the American Cryonics Society who proudly states that they have been freezing people for more than three decades with affordable suspension plans that are just $28 to start. Their website tells the story of some of their 'existing' clients, complete with pictures of the not yet ready to be dead, that somehow seem to evoke an eery feeling.
"On Friday, May 6, 1994, long-time ACS (American Cryonics Society) Governor, Dr. Richard P. (Dick) Marsh was pronounced legally dead and was suspended. Dick had been in poor health for many months with complications from a heart attack and respiratory problems. Dick was 81 years old."
"On February 5, long-time cryonicist Jerry White, age 55, was pronounced dead and was suspended. Jerry (Jerome B.) had been ill for many months with complications from the AIDS virus."
"Margaret died suddenly and unexpectedly, by her own hand, in the early morning hours of Monday, January 9. ACS was notified shortly thereafter. I was a member of the ACS team who went to the coroner's office and packed Margaret's head in ice. The Medical Examiner released the remains around noon. Margaret was flown to Rancho Cucamunga and perfused by a team at BioPreservation. Margaret is now stored at CryoSpan. We at ACS learned later that Margaret had for years been undergoing treatment for chronic depression."
The most convincing looking website belonged to The Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a self-proclaimed world leader in cryonics, cryonics research, and cryonics technology. Interestingly enough, Alcor's website has a section entitled Cryonics and Religion in which they explain that "Cryonics is an attempt to preserve and protect the gift of human life. The purpose of cryonics is to maintain life, not reverse death. Lack of legal status as a person does not imply a lack of moral status as a person. The spiritual status of cryonics patients is the same as frozen human embryos or unconscious medical patients. When properly examined, cryonics has been endorsed by both clergy and theologians." Interestingly, the specific names of any clergy or theologians weren't given.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, at this stage in the field of cryonics, there aren't any great success stories as yet. Indeed one company specializing in cryogenic life extension has come to the end of its life before their two frozen customers could be thawed out to continue theirs.
Established in 1993 the CryoCare Foundation was set up to provide "state-of-the-art" human cryopreservation. The company's website cites the fact that they "overestimated the potential growth and profitability of cryonics" as well the tendency of volunteers and enthusiasts to burn out, as the reasons for the company's demise.
There is little evidence to suggest that cryonics is going to be anything more than a last indulgence of a select few intent on gambling a small fortune on the promise of a scientific rebirth into the future when the world would undoubtedly be a vastly different place.
I am not sure whether I pity or admire those who choose to be suspended to extend their lives. Certainly, the possibility of re-emerging into a future where everyone I loved or cared for had long since been consigned to history is a quite sad prospect. Also, isn't it possible that the 'reborns' would live with a label that could be as damning in the future as it was to be a minority in the past?
Assuming that cryopreservation is indeed possible and there are no ill effects from spending maybe hundreds of years in liquid nitrogen, surely your new life would be a desperately lonely existence.