In a basement, in a house, in a leafy Sheffield suburb, I am stood with a man called Tim and a dummy corpse.
He is using it to demonstrate what he hopes will happen to him on the day he dies. He is showing me how two large cannula tubes will be jammed into the arteries of his neck and 40 litres of antifreeze flushed around his brain. He is explaining that his body will be drained of all its blood. He is describing how it will be placed on dry ice and shipped to America to be hung upside down in a giant flask of liquid nitrogen.
This, he says, will preserve him. Then, one day, way into the future when science has advanced, he hopes to be brought back to life.
Tim Gibson, you see – student landlord by day, windsurfer at weekends, all-round happy-go-lucky kind of chap – is also a cryonicist.
He believes technology will eventually reach a point where humans can be resurrected. And he wants to ensure his own body and brain are intact and ready to be revived when that happens.
“My survival instinct is too strong,” he says. “If I was in a plane crash in the mountains, I’d be the one eating the bodies so I could stay alive. This is an extension of that.”
That was in 2014, while I was working on a small story for a local newspaper, but Gibson is an interesting, if eccentric, bloke and we’ve stayed in touch since.
Then yesterday I woke up and, it turned out, Gibson was at the centre of a major ethical and medical controversy being reported on the front of pretty much every national newspaper. You will have read this: A high court judge has revealed that a 14-year-old British girl who died of cancer has, in accordance with her wishes, been cryogenically frozen in the hope she can be “woken up” in the future.
The youngster from London, identified only as JS, died on 17 October, and her body is now being stored in the US. Her family will have paid an estimated £40,000 for the placement. Gibson, as director of Cryonics UK – currently this country’s only organisation that helps people aiming at immortality – was one of a small team who helped preserve the girl’s body. The group pumped it with stabilising drugs, filled the brain with antifreeze and then organised delivery to the Cryonics Institute, in Michigan, in a specially built casket.
“From an operational point of view,” he says now, “it went well. It’s not nice working on someone so young but you become hardened to it.”
The controversy is that not everyone agrees it went so well. The girl’s doctors expressed misgivings about the process, and her mother described the whole thing as “disorganised”. Gibson himself won’t be drawn on the subject. We speak for 10 minutes but every time I raise it, he says he has nothing more to add.
Yet the use of the description "disorganised" perhaps shouldn’t entirely surprise.
Cryonics UK is run from Gibson’s Sheffield home and is a purely volunteer (and unregulated) organisation. No one within it has any medical training or qualifications. The 50 or so members – a disparate bunch of IT salesmen, students, OAPs, engineers, and suchlike – simply meet once every three months to practice what they call the "preservation runs". Since the group was founded in the mid-'80s, it has only carried out 10 real such operations.
“It’s difficult,” Gibson told me back in 2014. “When someone is pronounced legally dead you only get a small window before the body starts to deteriorate. It’s complex and things can go wrong, and it’s not particularly pleasant. You’re cutting into a human body and it’s difficult, and family members can be upset.”
They don’t claim to be medical experts, he noted. “But what we’re trying to do is give that person the chance of life in the future.”
The practice sessions I attended back then – they are held in members’ homes or village halls – were, truth be told, a little chaotic.
At one point the dummy body was knocked off the table. At another, the group wondered why the cardiopulmonary support machine wasn’t pumping. “Have you tried plugging it in?” someone joked. In fact, they hadn’t.
Cryonics itself is a relatively new science.
In 1773, one of America's founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, expressed his regret at living “in a century too little advanced” to preserve his body for future resurrection.
That was pretty much the subject closed until 1962, when physics teacher Robert Ettinger wrote a book, The Prospect of Immortality, arguing that since we keep food fresh by freezing, something similar could probably be done with humans.
Running with the idea, psychology professor Dr James Bedford became the first person ever to be preserved in 1967. His body remains in suspended animation today, stored upside down (so if there’s a leak the head remains submerged longest) at Arizona’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation. He is one of 138 people there. Another 100 or so are kept with different organisations across the US and Russia.
In Britain, things moved slower.
Around 1982, Sussex care home owner Alan Sinclair heard about the subject on TV and took an interest. “I enjoy life,” the now 78-year-old told me. “And I couldn’t see any benefit at all in pegging it.”
So he set up Cryonics UK.
Gibson joined the group around 1992 and took over in 2009. “Even as a kid, I realised the idea of being dead was a crap one,” he said. “Some people think this is weird. My dad thought I’d joined a cult. But this isn’t something that’s morbid. It’s about loving life and wanting to have more of it.”
Isn’t he scared that if this does work, he’s going to wake up in a future he can’t comprehend?
“Not really. It might be a little strange and people might not understand you but that’s only like going on holiday.”
Such sentiments seem to be shared by the group at large, all of whom pay £20 a month to be members. They’re a diverse lot – from all corners and backgrounds, and ranging in age from mid-twenties to late seventies – and not necessarily as eccentric as you might think.
“When I started, you’d mainly find Trekkies and techies at these meetings,” said Gibson. “But it’s increasingly opening up.”
Three factors have made it more acceptable, he said. One, the rapid advancement of technology means more young people are now beginning to believe what once seemed impossible.
Two, the internet has given this new audience greater access to the subject – indeed, court records show that is how JS found out about it. And three, the odd celebrity shout-out has led to minor mainstream attention. Simon Cowell has said he is signed up.
“As if it’s not enough,” noted one chap in the group I visit, “to inflict The X-Factor on this generation alone.”
If the actual preservation itself is something of a minefield, it’s nothing compared to what might happen at the other end. The chance of resurrection ever being possible is an outside bet at best.
The Society for Cryobiology – cryobiology is concerned with the effect of low temperature on living things – noted in 2010 that the practice was “an act of faith, not science”.
Preserved bodies have thawed before too. In 1979, one American business, the Cryonics Company of California, ran out of money, leading to nine bodies decomposing.
Aren’t members simply throwing their hard-earned away on a one-in-a-million chance?
“Could be,” was Tim’s answer. “We certainly don’t promise anything. You could die in such a way – in an accident for example – that we can’t preserve your body in the first place and then it’s over before it starts. All we say is we will do whatever we can, and then what happens in the future, happens. I look at it like buying a lottery ticket. I’m pretty certain I won’t win but I’m still going to keep buying it on the off-chance.”
Another member, David Farlow, an IT expert in his thirties from London, put it more succinctly: “This gives you a shot at life.”
Indeed, that shot at life is actually something Sinclair – the original founder – already has personal investment in.
In summer 2014, his wife of 46 years, Sylvia, died. She had been diagnosed with lung cancer only three weeks earlier. She was just 66.
The couple had two members of Cryonics UK staying with them in her final days.
“As soon as the doctor pronounced her dead, they went into action,” remembered Sinclair.
How does it feel now, I asked him, to know she’s over there, in America, suspended for all time?
There was a pause before he answered.
“It’s a comfort,” he said. “When someone you’ve loved so much and for so long dies like that, you can’t imagine the hurt. It may be an outside possibility but just the thought that one day, after I’ve gone too, I might be woken up to meet her again, I can’t think of anything better."
Benjamin Franklin was one of the founding fathers of the United States. He was never president of the country, as a previous version of this article stated.
Colin Drury is a journalist. He doesn't live in London.
Contact Colin Drury at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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