During a recent chat about freezing the body after death — cryogenics, I believe it's called — somebody said Walt Disney's body was frozen until they develop a cure for lung cancer. Disney supposedly is still technically alive, though terminally ill. I said freezing somebody alive is probably illegal, and if they waited for Uncle Walt to actually die, it would take too long to get him from hospital bed to Kelvinator — if you're dead more than five seconds they can't bring you back, right? Finally, how can cryogenics work at all?
Ted L., Los Angeles
Your skepticism gladdens my heart, Ted; obviously my years of patient effort are starting to pay off. First things first: (1) Walt Disney, as near as can be determined, was cremated on December 17, 1966, two days after his death. Admirable work in this regard was done by William Poundstone, author of a ground-breaking volume called Big Secrets. Poundstone heard not only that Walt was on ice, but that the body was stashed below the Pirates of the Caribbean exhibition at Disneyland. Disney was known to have been preoccupied with death, his funeral services were held in secret, and the cause of his demise was never formally announced. Poundstone, however, was able to get a copy of the death certificate, which says Walt died of cancer of the left lung and was cremated at Forest Lawn cemetery. The certificate was signed by an embalmer named Dean Fluss, a real guy who really worked at Forest Lawn. Forest Lawn would not disclose the location of the remains, but after a search Poundstone found the grave site in the cemetery’s Court of Freedom section. There is nothing remarkable about it. Conclusion: Walt was fried, not frozen.
(2) To date, as many as 40 people have had their bods frozen after death in hopes that new technology would someday be able to restore them to health. The first was James Bedford, a 73-year-old psychologist from Glendale, California, who got the Big Chill in 1967 — not long after Disney’s demise, interestingly. Many of the 40 were thawed after their estates ran out of money; allegedly only 11 are still in “cryonic suspension,” as it’s called. The chances that they will ever be revived successfully are slim. Currently there is no known way to freeze an entire body and revive it. The problem is twofold: when the body is frozen, ice crystals form in the cells and destroy them; and when it’s thawed, whatever cells are left die for lack of oxygen and nutrients.
Still, science has made mighty strides in this field of late, and eventually — well, who knows? For the last ten years or so animal husbandry experts have been freezing cow embryos for later implantation. In 1983 Australian doctors froze a human embryo, then thawed it and implanted it in a woman’s womb, resulting in an otherwise normal pregnancy; the procedure has since become fairly common. There’s also a brisk business today in frozen body parts for use in transplants. An antifreeze like dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) is used to prevent ice crystals from forming. Right now body-part freezing is mostly confined to durable items like bones and arteries, but some predict they’ll be transplanting frozen hearts in ten years.
Given the relatively primitive state of the art, is it worth spending $80,000 to get yourself frozen? I doubt it, but cryonics advocates disagree. “We’re preserving information, the genetic code carried in the DNA and the memories and personality imprinted in the weave of macromolecules in the brain,” says Arthur Quaife, president of Trans Time, a cryonics outfit based in Oakland, California. He admits reviving people isn’t going to be easy. “It’s going to require more sophisticated techniques than simply warming people up. There’s going to have to be a significant amount of reconstruction.” Just in case you had the idea this was going to be a case of heat ‘n’ serve.
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