Having yourself frozen for 1,000 years so you can wake up in the next millennia might sound like science fiction. A few enterprising groups, however, have turned this idea from fiction into reality.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is Cryonic Preservation?
- History of Cryonic Preservation
- Does Cryonic Preservation Actually Work?
- What Are the Pros and Cons of Cryonic Preservation?
- How Much Does Cryonic Preservation Cost?
- What Are the Intellectual, Ethical, and Religious Concerns Behind Cryonic Preservation?
- What Companies Offer Cryonic Preservation Today?
Suspended animation, called cryonic preservation, is based on real science. However, the process still has a long way to go before the general public believes in preserving life over hundreds of years.
What Is Cryonic Preservation?
Cryonic preservation is the process of cooling a body down so much after legal death that the process of death and decay stops. These people hope that science will become so advanced that they can sidestep the disease they died from – even old age itself! – by being brought back to life.
You’re not actually turned into an ice cube, contrary to popular belief. Rather, a controlled process cools your body down in an ice bath. Next, a medical-grade antifreeze called cryoprotectant keeps your cells from rupturing during the cooling process. Once the body temperature reaches a frigid -196 degrees celsius, it goes into a tank filled with liquid nitrogen for long-term storage.
This process certainly isn’t for everyone but it’s an interesting burial alternative for nontraditional people.
History of Cryonic Preservation
The history of cryonic preservation as a working method is still relatively young. However, we can trace the concept back to the 1700s with visionary Benjamin Franklin. In an essay, Franklin wrote, “I wish it were possible…to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant… then be recalled to life.” This is likely the first record of such a concept being considered.
Cryonic preservation didn’t get its real start until 1964 when Robert Ettinger developed the concept of freezing a body to stop the process of decay to resuscitate a person later. He published one small paper, then eventually came out with a best-selling work entitled, “The Prospect of Immortality.” Interestingly, the cryonic process was already being used to freeze embryos for use in IVF treatments.
In 1972, Alcor was incorporated in California as the first cryonic preservation business in the world. It eventually moved its facilities to Arizona to avoid earthquake risk.
In 1976, Ettinger, the father of cryonics, and three others formed the Cryonics Institute in Michigan to provide affordable preservation services to the general public. Ettinger was eventually placed in cryostasis at the facility after he died.
In 1986, the first companion animal was cryonically preserved by Alcor.
By 2001, researchers explored the possibility of suspending the brain in a cryostatic state by the process of vitrification — an ice-free preservation system. Four years later, this process was used for whole-body preservation, providing a safer method of preservation.
From 1976 to today, around 300 patients have been cryonically preserved between Cryonics Institute and Alcor.
Does Cryonic Preservation Actually Work?
Yes and no. When most people ask this question, they mean, “If I freeze my body, can someone wake me up in 15 years so I can see what the world looks like?” The answer to that question: Absolutely not.
To date, nobody has ever been able to resuscitate a whole person or animal that has been cryonically-preserved. Though embryos have been cryonically-preserved and thawed to life, whole mammals have not. At this stage, the process hasn’t even been successfully carried out on whole organs.
However, if you want to know whether the process of cryonic preservation will prevent a person’s physical cells from decaying, then the answer is yes.
Though the process does not necessarily stop cells from aging completely, it slows the process dramatically. If you were to peek into the cryonic chambers of those currently suspended in cryostasis, the bodies would appear largely as they did when they were first placed into the tank 10, 15, or 20 years ago.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Cryonic Preservation?
When thinking through the question of cryonic preservation, a list of pros and cons can help you determine whether the process makes sense for you.
- Life could begin anew, disease-free
- Mass organ preservation for donation could become a possibility
- Resuscitation may never take place
- It may conflict with religious beliefs
- May experience unforeseen side effects
- If resuscitation takes place, those resuscitated may regret the decision
How Much Does Cryonic Preservation Cost?
Cryonic preservation costs anywhere from $28,000 with a company based in Michigan to $200,000 with a company based in Arizona. These prices may not account for all services rendered such as transportation services, funeral home services, and other options a family chooses.
What Are the Intellectual, Ethical, and Religious Concerns Behind Cryonic Preservation?
The biggest hurdles for the acceptance of cryonics involve the intellectual, ethical, and religious concerns raised by those looking into this method of preservation. Intellectual concerns include “what if” questions and ethical concerns examine whether the practice makes sense on a moral level. Religious concerns deal with questions related to a person’s belief system.
Take a look at the following intellectual concerns you might consider.
What if you get to the future and you find that life has changed so much that you don’t want to live there? You can’t very well re-freeze your newly living self. What happens then?
Environmental impact and space issues
What if companies run out of space to house cryonically-preserved bodies? The space required to house cryonic chambers may have an enormous environmental impact on the planet.
What if the world experiences a severe economic depression and the money for maintenance runs out? What happens to the bodies?
What if you marry after your spouse dies/is preserved and both you and your new spouse are also cryonically preserved? What happens to those relationships if you are all resuscitated at the same time?
Numerous ethical questions arise with conversations centered around cryonic preservation. These are a few of the most common.
Loss of autonomy
Those who opt for cryonic preservation are legally dead and transfer ownership of their bodies to the facilities where they remain suspended in liquid nitrogen. It’s the company’s responsibility to decide if and when the patient should come out of the cryonic state and reanimate them.
Legally, bodies are signed over to the facilities under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act. This means that those suspended in cryostasis technically donate their bodies to science. Even if they are reanimated, the person may not be as free to decide the fate of their new life as they imagine.
Serious side effects
One of the biggest ethical concerns raised by the scientific community is the fact that cryonic preservation and subsequent resuscitation haven’t been performed on a whole person or animal. There is significant concern that someone could be “reanimated” and end up with side effects such as brain damage that would greatly impair their quality of life.
Duty of care
Should a cryonics company ever run out of funding and go bankrupt, who is responsible for keeping the patients suspended? Is there a moral obligation to keep them in a state of cryonic preservation or would the state be obligated to remove the bodies from preservation and lay them to rest via burial or cremation?
Cryonics advocates state that they do not bring a person back to life; they offer life support until they can be reawakened later. However, numerous religions may have issues with the cryonic process.
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam
These religions have not made official statements about the process, but all three are traditionally conservative when it comes to tampering with death and the afterlife.
Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, and Sikhism
Reincarnation is at the heart of these belief systems and death is a necessary part of the process. Reincarnation is required to eventually free oneself from the cycle of death and rebirth and eventually become enlightened and eternally free. Cryonic preservation may seem disruptive to the reincarnation cycle.
What Companies Offer Cryonic Preservation Today?
Though the idea of cryonic preservation first entered the stage more than 50 years ago, only a few companies offer the service to preserve your entire body today. Two of the longest operating and most reputable include Cryonics Institute and Alcor.
Cryonics Institute (CI) was founded by Ettinger in 1976. The company operates its own cryonics facility in Clinton Township, Michigan, and maintains over 100 patients currently in cryostasis.
The goal of CI from the start has been to provide the best cryonics services at an affordable price. To date, it offers one of the least expensive options around. Sign up ahead of time and a whole-body suspension will only cost you $28,000. Last-minute decisions close to death, if arranged, will add on a few thousand and bring the price tag to $35,000. When considering how much a funeral costs, these prices aren’t too far-fetched.
Pet cryopreservation is also offered in addition to DNA preservation and memorabilia storage. Neurosuspension is not offered.
Alcor has been active since 1972 and has 182 patients to date. It’s located in Scottsdale, Arizona, and functions as a nonprofit with patients paying much of their long-term care costs. Alcor offers two options for preservation: neurosuspension and whole-body suspension.
Prices range from $80,000 to $90,000 for neurosuspension and $200,000 to $210,000 for whole-body suspension. If you’re a U.S. resident, you can expect the smaller of the two price tags. Residents from other countries pay the extra $10,000 for added services related to travel and shipment costs to transport the body in its ice-cold state.
Preserving Your Body for Life
Cryonic preservation certainly isn’t for everyone. Along with ethical questions, you'll also have to consider the costs. But for science fiction fans and for those with a burning desire to know if life after death on earth can happen, getting cryonically-preserved might be too hard to resist.
- “Common Myths about Cryonics.” About Cryonics, Cryonics Institute, 2021. cryonics.org.
- Guzman, Zack. “This Company Will Freeze Your Dead Body for $200,000.” Innovation, NBC News, 26 April 2016. nbcnews.com.
- “History.” About, Alcor, 2021. alcor.org.
- “Robert Ettinger Biography.” The Father of Cryonics, Cryonics Institute, 2021. cryonics.org.
- Roxby, Philippa. “What are the Ethics of Cryonic Preservation?” Health, BBC, 18 November 2016. bbc.com.
- “Short History of Cryonics and CI.” History/Timeline, Cryonics Institute, 2021. cryonics.org.
- “What is Cryonics?” Cryonics, Alcor, 2021. alcor.org