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Fighting for the Right to Be Frozen

Weirdly, cryonics is still outlawed in BC.

By Danielle Egan 5 Jul 2006 |

Danielle Egan is contributing editor on The Tyee.

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Grodzicki: When dead, freeze my head.

With his 68th birthday approaching, Charles Grodzicki slapped down $28,000 USD for a plot to call home after his death. Like many people his age, the West Vancouverite is working on his will and has briefed his loved ones so they know exactly what he wants done with his remains. But he's having trouble finding a local funeral director to sell him a pre-arranged package, thanks to a little-known B.C. law enacted in 1990. "I've talked to so many people," says Grodzicki over juice at The Bread Garden. "Two Vancouver funeral directors, the head of the Western School of Funeral Services and the B.C. Association of Funeral Directors. All of them tell me what I want is illegal."

Grodzicki wants to be cryopreserved. The goal is to be "deanimated," then shipped to the Cryonics Institute (CI) just outside Detroit, Michigan, where he'll be preserved in liquid nitrogen and hopefully reanimated at a future date. "I'm very curious to know what life will be like in 100 years," says the fit, good-looking retiree who returned to Vancouver after decades working in finance at a Toronto-based global communications company. "At this point, I think the chances of reanimation are very slim. But even if there's less than a one per cent chance of success, it's better than the alternative, which to me is zero per cent."

But before he can embark on the next step towards being cryopreserved, he has to navigate the bureaucratic red tape around cryonics, which became illegal just before the Socreds lost power to the NDP in 1991. The law makes B.C. the only province in Canada to criminalize this so-called "speculative life support technology."

Cryo moms

Cryopreservation has been around since the late 1960s, but as of yet, no cryopreserved human remains have been re-animated, though there have been recent breakthroughs in frozen human embryos, human brain tissues and animal organ transplants. Cryonicists -- many of them scientists, doctors, PhDs, high-tech industry workers and Mensa members -- believe that necessary technologies will one day exist, largely through molecular biology and nanotechnology, which could be used to fix or build new cells ravaged by age, disease and the freezer burn-like damage of vitrification.

The scientific hurdles are certainly big, but so are those in attitude. Mainstream society tends to think of cryonicists as egomaniacal nut-bars with pubescent sci-fi fantasies (many are in fact single men) and more money than sense. In response, the cryonocists politely or otherwise point out that hundreds of millions of people around the globe have spiritually and financially invested in the concept of a heavenly life after death without any worry of scientific proof for such a scenario.

"I'd like my mother to be frozen," says Grodzicki. "But she's religious and thinks it goes against her beliefs. She says, 'What happens to my soul?' I say, 'Well, you'll get there eventually if you believe.' Other cryonicists have managed to convince their moms to trade in the family plot for the deep freeze, including CI's most recent patient, a 79-year-old Kingston, Ontario woman who became CI's 74th patient, joining two other Canucks already in "cryostasis" at the facility. Interestingly, five of the last seven CI patients were elderly mothers of male cryonicists. Forty-two pets are also stored at CI, one of only two cryonics facilities in the world. And currently another 1,500 or so warm-blooded cryonicists around the globe, including about thirty Canadians, have already pre-purchased the services by paying out a lump sum of money or by turning their life insurance policies over to CI or Phoenix-based Alcor Life Suspension Foundation. The latter charges $80,000 USD to vitrify and store a human head and $150,000 for the whole body.

Grodzicki chose CI, which doesn't offer head-only vitrification, and their services are a comparative steal at $28,000; although, unlike Alcor's package, the cost excludes "standby" (waiting at the bedside for the patient to die) and body preparation as well as transport. These services are typically provided by state or provincial funeral directors or the Florida-based company Suspended Animation, which charges up to $75,000 USD. Grodzicki picked CI because of its president Ben Best, whom he calls "the father of cryonics in Canada."

Health food and liquid nitrogen

Best co-founded the Toronto-based Cryonics Society of Canada where Grodzicki started attending regular meetings and events in the 80s. He was impressed with Best's passion and dedication to this field of research. Best became fascinated with cryonics while living in Vancouver, after picking up the book The Prospect of Immortality by Robert Ettinger at a local health food store. Best has since become one of the most prolific cryonics writers, publishing cryonics news on his own website, detailed essays on the science and history of cryonics and a web magazine called The Immortalist. So, when B.C.'s anti-cryonics law came into place, Best doggedly researched the whys and what-fors of the law.

"After contacting many government officials, I discovered that this law was created by one bureaucrat and everyone else just went along with it," says Best via phone. "I think this guy even forgot he'd done this when I contacted him again 10 years later. So it was a pretty slapdash thing, but once in place, hard to change." Best failed to get much sympathy from the NDP government through the 90s but did manage to help two local cryonicists receive something called "comfort letters" from bureaucrats assigned to consumer protection authorities. These letters state that it's actually not illegal for a B.C. citizen to buy cryonics packages or for funeral directors to participate in preparing and transporting their bodies, it's only illegal for B.C. businesses to market and sell cryopreservation, meaning that no storage facilities like Alcor and CI could exist here (though, as far as anyone knows, there have never been any attempts by scientists or snakeoil salesmen to market a Vancouver-based cryonics facility).

Comfort in the cold

Grodzicki recently asked for and received a comfort letter from Tayt Winnitoy, current enforcer of the Cremation Interment and Funeral Services Act and Director of Operations for the Business Practices and Consumer Protection Authority (BPCPA). So, he thought he'd have no trouble finding a local funeral director willing to prepare and ship his body to Detroit. But when he contacted people in the funeral services biz, he realized a comfort letter is no comfort at all if local funeral directors still think it's illegal in the first place and secondly have no clue how to prepare a cryonics patient.

Since the first few hours after death are crucial to the cryopreservation process, it's certainly not the type of tutorial you'd want to give most funeral directors at the last minute. To start, they'd need a whole lot of ice, water and a bathtub, preferably a portable one. Ideally they'd also have a heart-lung resuscitator to artificially restore blood circulation (though conventional CPR can be used) and IVs to administer anti-blood clotting agents, maintain blood pressure and protect the brain. After that, the de-animated "patient" must get to a cryonics facility ASAP, where an in-house team does the high-tech stuff, like replacing the body's blood with glycerol, transferring it to a cryostat chamber and further cooling it in nitrogen gas, to approximately 130 degrees Celsius.

Given the time-sensitivity issue, it's no wonder CI and Alcor recommend that their members move near their facilities if they're terminally ill; some Alcor members are even plotting to set up a retirement community near the Phoenix facility. For out-of-state CI clients, Best works with a Michigan-based funeral director who has trained funeral directors in Toronto, all of the U.S., Australia and even Timbuktu. Worst-case scenario, he's also created an emergency response kit and detailed action plan for Toronto-area cryonicists, which was put to the test in 2002.

'A practical answer to the problem of death'

"I read about a guy who had a stroke and they brought him back six hours later," says Brent, a 30-something cryonicist who's just joined in on the interview. Though he's not currently signed up for cryonics (many younger cryonicists hope that medical science, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will make mortality a thing of the past before they hit their golden years), the airline industry exec thinks cryonics is "a practical answer to the problem of death." Plus, "All the people I hate would be dead."

Unlike the industrious Toronto group, these three guys haven't organized regular get-togethers, never mind gone shopping for an "Emergency Preparedness" kit.

The initial steps might sound mind-boggling to most of us, but funeral directors are trained to do embalming, which involves a host of toxic chemicals and much more invasive procedures. "It's not a problem at all," says Jim Walsh, CI's contracted Michigan-based funeral director. Walsh has done over twenty cryonics preparation procedures and tutored funeral directors all over the globe, sometimes via phone: giving them step-by-step instructions in emergency cases. Walsh is not a cryonicist himself, and believes his soul will head elsewhere upon death, so plans to be buried. "But a person deserves the best possible service they desire and if someone has faith in everlasting life here on earth and that type of thing, we should not judge these people. We should respect their wishes as much as anyone else." Walsh feels that even if only a few Vancouver-based cryonicists are looking for this novel type of service, "funeral directors are here to service our communities and work very hard doing it."

Letter-writing campaign

Then why is Grodzicki having so much trouble convincing local funeral directors? "They might be having knee-jerk reactions to the cryonics law," says Tayt Winnitoy, BPCPA's resident enforcer of the Funeral Services Act. Winnitoy admits that the anti-cryonics law is confusing. It states that: "A person must not offer for sale, or sell, an arrangement for the preservation or storage of human remains that is based on (a) cryonics, (b) irradiation, or (c) any other means of preservation or storage, by whatever name called, and that is offered, or sold, on the expectation of the resuscitation of human remains at a future time."

Winnitoy admits to a "limited knowledge" about cryonics, but has recently fielded "a few" letters from cryonicists around the globe who reacted to Grodzicki's plight through a letter-writing campaign aimed at bureaucrats and also local funeral directors who were clueless about the government comfort letters prior to the campaign, according to Janet Ricciuti, director of the Funeral Services Association of B.C.

"I'd like to have seen those comfort letters," says Ricciuti, who was under the impression that any involvement in cryonics was illegal until last month. She has worked at the FSABC for 16 years and says cryonics never came up until "a few cryonicists started beating the drum on this topic." So, she recently had an informal meeting with funeral directors and contacted the BPCPA for clarification. The initial cryopreservation steps also need to "be demystified," according to Ricciuti. "With transporting longer distances, bodies are typically embalmed unless there's a cultural reason [in which case] they are placed in a hermetically sealed container. But refrigerated containers aren't required. Also, what about liability? We asked CI for an indemnification clause and they haven't gotten back to us." (Best has told The Tyee that liability clauses are typically offered to funeral directors and indeed even the cryonics facilities themselves have these types of clauses in their contracts.)

Ricciuti is hesitant to comment further, given her lack of specific knowledge about cryonics, but she's not against the idea of a tutorial from Jim Walsh's crack cryopreservation team. "A person's choices and deep-seated desires are important, but if everyone wanted to hang human remains on trees, that would cause a big problem. It's archaic."

Death on the agenda, July 6th

Cryonics may be too futuristic for our local officials and businesses to wrap their heads around. But they have decided to put cryonics on the agenda for the next Advisory Group meeting on July 6th. "It has been fascinating hearing about cryonics and I have spoken with [Grodzicki's girlfriend] about the issue," says Tom Aquiline, BPCPA Deputy Director, Industry Relations and Chair of the Cremation and Interment Advisory Group. "The law doesn't speak to the specific issue of preparation for transport. There seems to be a conflict between the rights of consumers and the rights of businesses. So the topic raises a lot of interesting questions."

The topic of death has always raised some very interesting questions and a wide range of responses that seem satisfactory to some and horrifying to others. The strange B.C. anti-cryonics law alone brings up questions about other, currently legal, medical practices. Could "resuscitation of human remains at a future time" be interpreted to include religious burials? Thousands of frozen embryos stored at fertility clinics round the globe? Today's life-support technologies? In the funeral services biz, which has become increasingly Disneyfied and franchised, where you can buy illegal tainted organs or even have your ashes jettisoned into space, some people think cryonics really isn't that weird. "Maybe they're worried about the legal ramifications, or lack of volume, and don't want to take the risk for one clown," says Grodzicki. "The majority of people think it's a cuckoo idea. They probably think of Frankenstein. But, I've had a ball so far in my life and I want to be able to do it all over again. How is that hurting anyone?"

Zero population growth types would undoubtedly have concerns, particularly if boomers turn to cryonics en masse. But, imagine waking up in 3006? It's for that reason, some people think cryonocists like Charles Grodzicki are brave. Case in point: if a Vancouver funeral director doesn't come on board, he's even contemplating moving back to Toronto. How would the Toronto tourism and real estate industries react to that trend? Imagine the ads geared to North American boomers itching to re-locate to Vancouver's otherwise temperate shores: "Forget Vancouver. Toronto is the place to die."

Danielle Egan is a Vancouver-based writer.  [Tyee]

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