In some form of bizarre experiment a man who died 30 years ago is being preserved with packs of ice as it is expected that there could be a scientific breakthrough that might bring him back to life.
In a backyard shed in the snowy town of Nederland in the United States lies the frozen corpse of Bredo Morstoel.
The Norwegian man died 30 years ago. If plans go accordingly, he may one day walk again.
Inside Bredo’s timber mausoleum, a man named Brad Wickham throws bricks of dry ice onto a metal casket.
Brad does this job every two weeks in rain, hail or blizzard — for a meagre amount of money sent to him from Bredo’s grandson in Norway.
“Other people might find it a little bit more of a hassle than it’s worth,” he grunts, gloved hands shovelling frozen bricks from his pick-up truck to the shed.
“I don’t need the money any longer, I just see it as, well, I am unique. Who else is driving a load of ice to put on a dead guy today? Oh that’s right, no-one!”
‘An attempt to travel in time’
Cryonics — or cryopreservation — involves freezing a body to -196 degrees Celsius moments after a person has been legally declared dead.
It is then hoped the body remains “suspended” between life and death, so that future breakthroughs in medical science will enable “reanimation” — or in other words, will bring them back to life.
“It’s an attempt to travel in time,” Trygve says, “to be stored in hibernation until such a time that you can be restored to active life.”
He’s the first to admit that this sounds like something out of science fiction, but Trygve believes medical reanimation is within our scientific reach.
And he’s not alone.
About 300 bodies are currently suspended in cryonic facilities around the world, with thousands more on waiting lists.
Life after death
Eternal life may be an age-old human dream, but it wasn’t until 1962, when American academic Robert Ettinger penned his scientific paper The Prospect of Immortality, that cryonics became somewhat feasible.
Ettinger theorised that the concept of death is relative and only dependent on the sophistication of medical technology of the time.
“Only a generation or two back you were given up as dead if your heart stopped,” Trygve says.
“Today they’ll call in the ambulance and many times they are able to restart your heart and you go on living.”
It is this belief that underpins cryonicist or life extensionist thinking today: that since the breakdown of cells and tissues only occurs after the heart or brain stops functioning, then “legal death” as we understand it is not necessarily the end of life.
From Norway to Nederland
In 1974, American psychology professor James Bedford became the first person to be successfully cryopreserved after his death to cancer.
During this time, the world was in the grip of Cold War politics: bomb shelters, “duck-and-cover” education and the threat of nuclear attack became part of daily life in the West.
This atmosphere fuelled an emerging movement of “survivalists” (or “preppers”), which Trygve belonged to.
For Trygve, survivalism and life extension go hand in hand.
“It doesn’t help if we have lots of great breakthroughs in science and medicine that greatly expand human life expectancy if it’s all destroyed by some huge world war again,” he says.
This prompted him to move to the middle of the United States in 1980, where he began constructing a concrete, doomsday-proof home in Nederland.
Nearly a decade later, Bredo died in Norway at the age of 89.
Trygve immediately put his grandfather’s body on ice and flew him to the Alcor Life Extension plant in Oakland, California, the same facility where Bedford’s body still lies today.
The US is one of the only countries where cryopreservation is legal, albeit expensive. The procedure and storage can cost anywhere from $28,000 to $200,000 — a one-off fee paid at the time of death.
Bredo spent the first four years of his suspended state at Alcor, while Trygve started building his own, more cost-effective cryonic chamber in his Nederland backyard.
Trygve has managed Bredo’s preservation from Norway since 1994, hiring a series of local caretakers to cart a fresh truckload of dry ice to the shed each fortnight.
Bo Shaffer held the position for the longest.
Like Brad, Bo never met Trygve, but he faithfully did his ice runs for 18 long years.
“I don’t fear death anymore at all,” Bo says.
“I mean, death happens, we’re all going to die.”
But despite Bo’s dedication to the job, he doesn’t have much faith in Bredo’s revival.
“Anybody woken anybody up from one of these yet? Reanimated anybody? No,” he says.
Brad also has his doubts.
“Being in a casket with blocks of ice on top of it over the course of 24 years makes reanimation — even for the most challenged professional — something that possibly won’t happen,” he says.
Brad, a former nurse, had never heard of cryonics before he took over the job from Bo seven years ago, but he’s warming up to the idea.
He says DNA extraction and some form of cloning would be the most likely future for Bredo.
“Of course,” Trygve agrees.
The goal of cryonics, he explains, is to see the dead restored not only to life, but to youth and health.
This relies on a hope that regenerative medicine, nanotechnology and genetic research will one day reach a point where cell aging and damage (and thus, disease) could be stopped or even reversed.
In recent years, intelligent bionic limbs and organs have become a reality.
Just this year, scientists in Tel Aviv 3D-printed a heart, complete with cells, blood vessels, ventricles and chambers.
American start-up Nectome is experimenting with controversial chemical brain preservation, with the goal of uploading memory, neuron by neuron, to computer simulation.
From a “life extensionist” perspective, cryonics is simply a back-up plan until these technologies can extend human life indefinitely.