Illustration by Lili Des Bellons

This article is a preview from the Summer 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Sylvia and Alan Sinclair were together for more than 40 years. They raised a family of four, saw in the births of eight grandchildren and managed a number of care homes. By the start of 2013, they had settled happily into a quiet retirement on the Sussex coast, not a mile from where the chalk white cliffs drop into the English Channel at Telscombe. Sylvia was 66 and as “fit as a fiddle”, according to Alan, so it was a great shock when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer. Her decline was sudden and steep. Within a matter of weeks she was dead.

For Alan, their children and grandchildren, these events felt seismic. The sheer speed of her deterioration had made it all impossible to process. For months and years to come they would feel the enormity of the loss of a wife, a mum, a nanny. But for a group of her friends who sat waiting in the next room, there was no time for grief. As soon as she was ronounced dead, they swung into action.

“She died at about 4am on 15 May,” Mike Carter, a retired engineer, reported later, “and was immediately placed in an ice bath ... Chest compressions [were] given by means of a CPR machine. Medications were administered via a FAST intra-osseous infuser in the sternum, plus Maalox (an antacid), administered via a CombiTube inserted in the throat. Once the medications had been administered, shortly after 5am, the [private] ambulance was driven to the premises of a local embalmer, who was waiting for us.”

There, the embalmer switched her blood for an “anti-freeze” solution before the body was moved to London and packed into a container lined with dry ice. While concerned eyes checked and rechecked the thermometer, the mercury fell from -4C to -24C, then to -34C, then finally – after five days and two top-ups of dry ice – to the required -70C. Thus chilled, the whole container was air-freighted to the United States, arriving at its destination in Clinton, Michigan, the following day.
There, head down in her metal casket, Sylvia took her place among the ranks of her predecessors, some of whom had been waiting there for decades already. Among their number were Rhea Ettinger, since her death in September 1977; Rhea’s daughter-in-law Elaine Ettinger (died November 1987); Richard Marsh (died May 1994); John Connole (died December 2005); and Yuliya Vertelets’ka (died January 2012).

These individuals believed that they will be reborn, healthier than ever before, into a world dazzling beyond their imaginations. But they are not Christians dreaming of heaven, or Muslims of Jannah, or Jews of Olam Habah. They are cryonicists.

Sylvia did not believe in any god but instead thought that at some point in the future – decades or centuries after her death – she would be thawed, cured and revived. And these cryonicists are not alone. Many atheists believe that one day, perhaps not long from now, a form of immortality will be possible. Rather than trust their fates to God, they pin their hopes on ever-advancing human technology.

* * *

Some point to the promise of regenerative medicine – regrowing damaged organs from the patient’s own stem cells – as a way forward, replacing each faulty component as it breaks down like engine parts in a car. Lab-grown tracheas and bladders are already implanted into humans. A host of other types of cell material has been grown, including rudimentary kidneys, livers, bones and pituitary glands.

Others discuss the possibilities offered by nanotechnology in the hushed, reverential tones more commonly reserved for the cathedral nave. Many of the proposed applications of such technology seem incredible, more at home in sci-fi or children’s books: tiny robots roaming the body, patching it up as they go.

The computer scientist Ray Kurzweil advises abandoning biology entirely and instead uploading our minds to computers and becoming “digitally immortal”. The Singularity, as this event is known, could take place as soon as 2045, according to Kurzweil.

All of this might sound like the ranting of a crazed man but Kurzweil has a certain amount of credibility, having received honours from three US presidents. Bill Gates has described him as “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence”. Since 2012, he has been working as a director of engineering for Google.

In 2013, Google founded the mysterious California Life Company (“Calico”) whose stated mission is to harness “advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan”. Among its recruits is Professor Cynthia Kenyon, who was catapulted to scientific superstardom in the 1990s when she demonstrated that by partially disabling a single gene known as daf-2, she could double, quadruple or even sextuple the lifespan of a roundworm.

Google’s recruitment of Kenyon, plus its partnerships with and others, signals that significant finance and brainpower are now being directed towards finding solutions to the knotty problem of ageing. And, by extension, to its inevitable conclusion: death.

* * *

Elizabeth Parrish doesn’t think of ageing as a problem. She thinks of it as a disease. “Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, muscle wastage: all of these are just symptoms of a body that is growing old. Biological ageing underlies every one.”

She and her biotech start-up BioViva looked at the findings of Kenyon and her peers – that cells appear genetically programmed to degenerate at a certain age – and surmised that gene therapy targeted at circumventing this process might offer a solution to all the myriad medical problems that present with old age.

“I felt that we had a mandate to cure disease as soon as we could, and that cures existed that were not being used,” she told me on Skype from her home near Seattle. “Some really promising therapies have successfully reversed ageing in mice and in almost every human tissue they have ever been applied to.”

There was a problem, however. Potential investors wanted proof that these therapies would actually work in humans – but they were not yet regulated for human use.

So, in October last year, she made what seemed to be the “obvious choice” and flew to Colombia, where a looser regulatory system allowed her to undergo two experimental treatments in which she injected genetically modified viruses into herself. She announced the move during a question and answer session on Reddit. “I am patient zero,” she told an adulatory crowd. “Ask me anything.”

Parrish is a remarkably youthful 45-year-old and it will be a long time before any benefit of her treatments might become visible to the naked eye. But within 12-18 months, there should be some regeneration of tissues. She intends to measure changes in muscle mass, skin texture and the biological “age” of her cells.

By proving the treatment’s safety and efficacy, she hopes to encourage investment to flood in, allowing further development and a streamlining of costs, which are considerable. Each of Parrish’s treatments – an injection of the gene follistatin to target muscle loss and another that involves the age-linked enzyme telomerase – costs “$200,000 to $400,000” to produce.

The expense of these potential treatments exposes commercial ventures in this field to significant ethical quandaries. If health and eternal youth were indeed to become things that could be bought and sold, might we see a future in which only the rich can afford to live forever?

Parrish, like others in her industry, waves away these concerns. All new technologies are expensive, she reminded me. Prices will come down, just as once computers cost millions but are now ubiquitous, sitting on every desk. She hopes ultimately to bring costs to a level “inexpensive enough for the average person”.

Nevertheless, the prospect of the gulf that might open up – between a developed world with widespread access to anti-ageing treatments and a developing world where life expectancy remains as low as 50 in some countries – looms large in every discussion of this issue, in my mind at least.

About other practical concerns, such as the danger of overpopulation, the anti-death brigade is equally breezy, brushing off concerns by offering up futurist solutions (Parrish has, in the past, suggested that this might become less of an issue because “space travel will increase”), or by noting that in developed countries, where women have control of their fertility, birth rates have already dropped significantly. Indeed, Japan and Germany now have populations in decline.

Others go further, such as the American author and would-be politician Zoltan Istvan, who has previously raised the spectre of “breeding controls” such as licences for prospective parents or government-sponsored birth control. He took a different tack when I contacted him directly: “I definitely don’t advocate less people on Earth,” he told me by email. “The truth is the Earth can easily handle twice the amount of people it has now.”

Istvan recently returned from three months on the campaign trail, during which he drove from San Francisco to Washington, DC, in a bus modified to look like a 40-foot coffin. He was running for president on the “Transhumanist Party” ticket, as part of a movement he set up in 2014 that aims to transcend the limitations of the human body – including death.

Despite his wholesome, all-American looks, Istvan more than anyone embodies the oddball image of the transhumanist subculture. He has a reputation – and not an unreasonable one – for preaching a loose amalgam of sci-fi fantasy (“Why should we not create something to fill the ozone layer if it’s being depleted?” he asked me. “Why not cure cancer, so we don’t have to worry so much about the ozone layer?”) and conspiracy theory (he believes that violent conflict will break out “in the next 10-20 years, as humans start evolving into cyborgs”).

Istvan’s ideas are absurd but, because of their speculative nature, they can’t be disproved and so are impossible to counter with realist nit-picking. As is so often the way with futurist thinkers, it becomes hard for the layperson to distinguish the prophet of mercy from the snake-oil salesman. Why can’t we cure cancer? In the far-off future, we can do anything we want.

* * *

Such speculation is all well and good but no one knows when it might come to fruition. Perhaps Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity really will be here in 2045 – but what good is that for people who are staring death in the face today? This is where cryonics comes in.

It is the science of stopping the clock for those who die before the ambition (or fantasy?) of immortality can be made into reality. There are three companies currently undertaking this work: Russia’s KrioRus, as well as two American institutions – Alcor in Arizona and the Cryonics Institute in Michigan, which was Sylvia Sinclair’s choice.

They promise to store their clients’ remains at extremely cold temperatures in order to render them in a state of suspended animation until the technology becomes available to revive and “reanimate” them at some unknown date in the future. Alcor and KrioRus also offer a cut-price service, in which only the brains are preserved, gambling on the chance that the memories and identities contained within them will one day be uploaded into cyborgs or custom-built bodies. Between them, the three companies hold 328 frozen brains and bodies, or “vitrified patients”, as those in the business would describe them. Thousands more are signed up to join them.

The process is expensive, costing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, and comes with no guarantee of success. There has been extensive debate in the scientific community about whether eventual “thawing” is even possible without causing irreparable physical damage. Nevertheless, the number of clients grows every year. When three Oxford academics “came out” as cryonicists in 2013, it appeared to mark the passage of cryonics from the dominion of cranks to more mainstream science.

In Britain, 120 people have signed up, including Victoria Stevens, a student and mother of two from Whitby, North Yorkshire. “I like the idea of having more time to spend with people I love,” she said. “It’s not about death. It’s about life.” The $28,000 cost will be covered by a life insurance policy that she currently pays into at the rate of £35 a month; she also pays £25 a month to Cryonics UK, a voluntary organisation that sends a “standby” team to the deathbed of every member to enact their final wishes.

She knows that it’s a long shot. “You don’t know when you will be revived, or even if you will at all. There’s no certainty and every cryonicist knows that. But in some ways that’s exciting, and daunting as well. It’s an adventure.”

Lord Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society, is less sanguine about the odds of Stevens’s survival. “I am against cryonics,” he told me by email. “Even its supporters would regard the chance of successful resurrection as very small – so small, I’d have thought, that it’s overwhelmingly probable that the money would be wasted. It would be better to bequeath it to some good cause.” In the unlikely event of revival, the survivors would impose an incredible burden on later generations, he added. “So, either way, signing up for cryonic ‘processing’ seems both foolish and selfish.”

Some years ago, these views brought Rees, who has been the Astronomer Royal since 1995, into conflict with a group called (as he recalls) the Society for the Abolition of Involuntary Death, who derided him as a “deathist” for proclaiming that he would rather end his days “in an English churchyard than a Californian refrigerator”.

The same disagreement divided Kim Suozzi and her parents when the 23-year-old American went public with her plans for cryopreservation in 2012. Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, she appealed online for donations towards the $80,000 cost, so that she might reconcile herself to her early death.

“I caused a lot of family controversy by breaking the news to my parents,” she wrote in August of that year. “They are Christian and don’t see why I’d want to be preserved. In their mind, I am going to heaven and my ‘soul’ will forever leave my body when I die anyway.”

She died the following January and her brain is now held in the Alcor vaults in Arizona. Afterwards, Suozzi’s mother spoke to the media about her misgivings: “I worked real hard on reconciling it with my personal faith and trying to be OK with it, and I am OK with it ... As she said, what is she going to do, rot in the ground? We are talking about her body, we are not talking about her soul.”

* * *

It is the questions of the division of body and soul and of heaven that explain why the overwhelming majority of cryonicists today are atheists. Alan Sinclair, Sylvia’s husband and former Cryonics UK president, claims that he once signed up an English vicar. “I thought: if there’s an afterlife, why cryonics? But he never explained. Perhaps he never really believed.”
The group’s current president, Tim Gibson, could not confirm whether the vicar went through with his plan but he was equally mystified. “Religion with cryonics is a bit like owning two cars,” he said. “You’ll always have to leave one behind.”

All of which poses the question: if a breakthrough were to occur and death-defying technologies such as cryonics were to go truly mainstream, might it be only the religious who choose to die? Lincoln Cannon doesn’t think so. He founded the Mormon Transhumanist Association ten years ago, which now boasts nearly 600 members, and advises

a similar Christian group that was set up last year. “There are strong religious reasons to support [life extension] research,” he explained to me. “I don’t know of a major world religion that does not exhort its adherents to console and heal each other. And most also include prophecies like that in Christianity about a future day of transfiguration, when humanity will change from mortality to immortality.” He directs me to the Bible, 1 Corinthians 15:51-54.

Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed ... for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed ... So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.

“I’ve been slowly working toward organising a mass sign-up of religious transhumanists for cryonics services,” he continued. “I trust in the literal physical resurrection of the dead, brought about by humanity for its ancestors, as we use the means available to us by the grace of God.”

It would be better all round, the cryonicists argue, if they were allowed to process and freeze patients before natural death has occurred. Such an approach could address concerns among religious members about the fate of the soul and alleviate more obvious biological problems, namely: a thawed-out dead person is more difficult to cure than a terminally ill one.

But laws are laws and, for now, cryonicists must be satisfied with rushing the procedure as soon as possible after death to minimise decay. To this end, Cryonics UK spends much time and money training its standby team, meeting quarterly at Gibson’s house in Sheffield to run simulations with plastic dummies. Downstairs, sealed safely away in metal lockers in his basement, he keeps a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals and miscellaneous mortuary apparatus. I join them for a day and together we practise what to do when the worst happens: fitting a chest compression machine, filling syringes, stamping intra-osseous needles on the sternum with the force required to penetrate bone. (“Don’t panic,” Gibson reminds us when someone fumbles, confusing levers and letting tubes leak out across the table. “The patient is already dead.”)

In this and many other ways, the cryonicists live in a constant state of anticipation. It may well be about life and living, as Victoria Stevens contended, but death and all its trappings are necessarily at the forefront of their preparations. Immersed in the gory details and the logistical nightmare presented by each of their deaths, the members are united by a gallows humour. Back in 2009, Alan Sinclair joked in an interview that Sylvia would put arsenic in the tea: without it, they were not dying quickly enough to hone their skills.

But when Sylvia received her diagnosis, the news of her impending death was as terrifying as it would be for any family. And her death, when it came, was as unbearable. “The fact is,” said Alan, “the sense of loss is just the same.” He sighed. “The chance that we could be reunited… we’re talking about if it becomes possible. I don’t know. I’ve been doing this 30 years and we’ve only been very gradually progressing.”

In the months and years since her death, members of the family have returned again and again to leave messages and place virtual candles beneath her portrait on a public tribute website. Her sons write of work and family life and of how much they miss her; granddaughters update her on their university applications. The memory of Sylvia, certainly, is being kept alive. And, in its way, is that not another grab for immortality?

I trace back through the messages, back towards the source of the pain. In the early hours, only a few weeks after her death, her husband typed into the void. “You are in my thoughts 24 hours a day,” he told her. “Days that are so long and empty without you. I hope I don’t have to wait long to be with you again my love ... You know how much I love you and can only hope through cryonics we will be able to hold hands watching TV again.”

Cal Flyn’s “Thicker Than Water” is published by HarperCollins