The Iceman Cometh: The Cryonics Movement and Frozen Immortality

Clifton D Bryant & William E Snizek. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

This reprinted article was first published 30 years ago, but the information contained in it is as relevant today as it was then. The essay is, essentially, a social history of cryonics. Nothing has occurred that has significantly altered the information presented in the article. The techniques and procedures of cryonics are still approximately the same. The inherent problems and criticisms still exist. The marginality of cryonics as a mode of body disposition largely remains the same. What has changed, however, is the outcome. In the original article, it was asserted that the cryonics movement had, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist and that it had no future. This prognosis was in error. The cryonics movement did continue, albeit with a somewhat reduced following and less momentum. Currently, however, there are four cryonic suspension storage facilities in operation. There remains a small but dedicated band of advocates, participants, and operatives, and cryonics still has its constituency of “true believers.” Prophecy failed! The cost of cryonic suspension is substantially higher than 30 years ago, and because of scientific discoveries and technological advances such as cloning, in some instances only the head of a patient is frozen. The assumption is that by the time the head is thawed, scientists will be able to successfully clone a body to be reattached to the head. Public interest and curiosity continues at a modest level, and there is reason to believe that the cryonics movement will continue into the future and that, ultimately, this mode of body disposition may well become far more popular. The current cryonics situation is explored in some detail in a later chapter of this Handbook titled “Disposing of the Dead: Minor Modes.”

Death—unexplained and inexplicable—has always preoccupied mankind. An enormous amount of intellectual energy has gone toward developing value systems which permit man to cope with his fears of dying and the dead. Rapid technological advance, proliferation of scientific discovery and expansion of knowledge have dispelled many traditional fears of spirits and ghosts. At the same time these forces have also eroded the effectiveness of systems of religious thought in neutralizing the prospect of death. Recent successful efforts to prolong, manipulate and moderate life render even more distasteful the prospect of total annihilation of self. In light of all these factors, man has sought alternate intellectual, even technological mechanisms for handling his anxieties concerning dying and death.


In 1947, Robert C. W. Ettinger, an ex-GI who was convalescing in a Michigan hospital from a wound sustained in World War II, read of the work of Jean Rostand in successful freezing and thawing of frog sperm. Fired by the implications of the experiments for humans, Ettinger saw the possibility of freezing the dead to preserve them until the day when medical help or widespread immortality might be forthcoming. As he recalled in a later interview in Cryonics Reports, 1966, “It struck me then that, even if suspended animation or LTA (low temperature anabiosis) techniques were not fully perfected, one could freeze the newly dead, accepting whatever degree of freezing damage was unavoidable, and still have a non-zero chance of eventual revival.”

Ettinger sent a one-page summary of his hypothesis to several hundred people randomly selected from Who’s Who. When only a few persons responded, he realized the necessity of a more detailed and convincing exposition and presented some of the validating scientific evidence in a manuscript titled The Prospect of Immortality. Ettinger privately published it in 1962, and in 1964 it was published by Doubleday. (It has subsequently appeared in a paperback edition.) The book had some limited, favorable but largely guarded, response from the scientific and medical communities. Ettinger’s proposal for frozen immortality attracted considerable attention in the popular press. In time he wrote articles for such periodicals as Esquire, and his book appeared in serialized form in several newspapers. It was also translated and published in a number of foreign countries. He was a guest on numerous radio and television shows and for a time became something of a prophetic personage, albeit celebrity, throughout the country. His proposal attracted a considerable following of visionaries, who wished to be in the frosty vanguard. For members of the emerging movement, Ettinger was to be their prophet, and The Prospect of Immortality, their holy writ. The true believers awaited their marching orders.

The Cryonics Movement

Shortly after the publication of Ettinger’s book, persons in various parts of the country began to meet, compare notes and take action on “cryonic internment.” A Life Extension Society was formed. In 1965 a Cryonics Society was organized in New York by several persons interested in both “cryogenic internment” and the logistical problems of such a procedure. The name cryonics (referring to the activities surrounding human cold storage) was coined by a vice president of the group. Appropriate legal documents and mechanisms for setting up life insurance trust funds for financing frozen “suspension” were developed. In 1966, a dozen interested persons met in Robert Ettinger’s home in Oak Park, Michigan, and two weeks later organized themselves as the Cryonics Society of Michigan. Another group in Los Angeles was organized as the Cryonics Society of California. One individual in Arizona began to manufacture “capsules” for the storage of frozen “patients,” as well as to build a facility to house them. He also acquired a license to freeze and store bodies. A national conference of the Life Extension Society was held in 1966 in Washington, D.C. The New York society began to publish a periodical devoted to the cryonics enterprise, the Cryonics Reports. (Basically a newsletter, it contained interviews with notables such as Ettinger, a chronological log of signal events in the movement and accounts of recent suspensions.) Within a few years, it assumed a slicker format and a more esoteric title, Immortality, and circulation grew to several hundred. By the time of Expo 70, the theme of frozen suspension was considered to have sufficient public interest to justify an elaborate Immortality Pavilion exhibit at the Montreal International Exposition. Among other components of the exhibit were an architect’s model of a giant storage facility for frozen bodies—a wheel-like structure called a “cryosanctorum,” and coffin-like “resting pockets” in the wall of an auditorium from which Expo visitors could view a short film depicting the freezing process. The faithful were enraged at what they perceived as a banal and misleading effort at publicizing cryonics and attacked the exhibit as lacking seriousness of purpose in the Winter 1971 edition of Immortality.

Cryonic Suspension

The aim of cryonic (cryogenic) internment is simple. The recently dead individual is subjected to a series of cooling procedures that will prevent the physical deterioration of the body. Stored at a supercool temperature, the person in cryonic suspension will theoretically “keep” indefinitely. Ultimately medical science may evolve to the point where the cause of the individual’s death could have been prevented and even death itself can be reversed. At that time, the frozen corpse could be thawed, death reversed, the cause of the terminal condition cured, and the “patient” returned to a normal active life. A corollary hope is that of reversing the effects of the aging process. The important thing is to halt the cellular deterioration of the deceased body as soon as possible after death. (Ideally, freezing an individual before death would make him the perfect candidate for cryonic suspension.)

The freezing of a human body for indefinite preservation is a multistage process. First, after the “patient” has been declared clinically dead, the blood is drained and the body cooled to about 10° C. The arteries and lungs are then perfused with a glycerol fluid to help retard cellular damage due to the expansion of ice crystals following freezing. Once this protective fluid has been injected into the vascular system, the “patient” is wrapped in aluminum foil to protect against accumulated frost due to condensation, and stored in a dry ice container similar to a coffin at a temperature of -79° C. From the temporary dry ice box, the “patient” is later transferred to a permanent cryonics suspension capsule, resembling a large hot water heater, and stored in liquid nitrogen at -196° C (-320° F). At this temperature molecular movement, for all intents and purposes, ceases, thereby arresting further cellular deterioration.

The initial cost of encapsulation is approximately $10,000. This amount covers the cost of chemicals, capsule, preparation and handling of the body, and one year’s storage. Continued storage and replacement of liquid nitrogen costs about $1,200 per year. No fixed monetary amount has yet been projected for the restoration to “life and health” of the body, should medical science progress sufficiently to enable such an undertaking.

Apart from the technical and financial aspects involved in the freezing process, there is a legal element as well. Individuals who desire encapsulation are encouraged to personally contract to have their bodies frozen upon death, rather than leaving the necessary arrangements to a relative or close friend. All too often, when such a contract has not been made formally, those individuals entrusted with carrying out the deceased’s wishes have reneged. Individuals are encouraged to sign a notarized “cryonic suspension agreement” between themselves and a Cryonic Suspension Society, and to take out an insurance policy for at least $20,000 naming the society as beneficiary.

The Suspended

The cryonic Columbus of the present ice age was James H. Bedford, a 73-year-old retired professor of psychology who died of cancer and was frozen on January 12, 1967, in Los Angeles, according to his wishes. He was shipped to Phoenix, Arizona, to be placed in one of the first “cryocapsules.” Because of excessive nitrogen boil-off, he was transferred to a new capsule and was ultimately returned to California for final storage. Several years later, when little had been heard of him, cryonic enthusiasts around the country became alarmed lest he had been secretly thawed. To resolve the matter, a special squadron of the Cryonics Youth Association was dispatched on a fact-finding expedition. Happily, they were able to report that Bedford was “frozen and well in Southern California.” Bedford’s cryonic internment was of sufficient historical note that a book, We Froze the First Man, was written about the event by Robert F. Nelson, a participant in the enterprise.

Within a short time, other members of the Cryonics Society died, and the movement snowballed. Steven Jay Mandell, a 24-year-old aeronautical engineering student at New York University, was an avid science-fiction fan. Having seen, in one of his science-fiction magazines, an ad placed by the Cryonics Society of New York, Steven fell in with the ranks of believers. He joined the society, gave the necessary instructions and set up a Cryonics Society trust fund to pay for his eventual freezing. Seven months later he was dead of cancer and, with the help of five members of the Cryonics Society, funeral directors prepared him for cryonic suspension. Mandell, who had been fearful of brain damage in thawing, had taken the precaution of preparing an audiotape, to be frozen with him, of the experiences of his life which he wished to retain when revived.

Other “patients” included Helen Kline, who “passed through clinical death” in 1968 in a California hospital and was cryonically suspended and placed in temporary storage in the face of some opposition by relatives. Unfortunately, the problem of finances delayed the prospect of permanent storage.

In 1967, Marie Sweet, an early member of the Life Extension Society and ardent booster of the movement, died in California. Although she had prudently taken out a $3,000 life insurance policy to provide for her own cryonic suspension, the amount was inadequate to purchase a cryocapsule, and as a makeshift arrangement she was wrapped in tin foil and packed in dry ice (which must be replenished weekly) in a casket. As with Helen Kline, an appeal was also made for funds for Marie Sweet.

There were numerous abortive attempts at placing “patients” in cryonic suspension. When, for example, New Yorker Andrew D. Mihak died of a heart attack in 1968, his wife decided on the spur of the moment that she wished to have her husband frozen. After many complications, members of the New York Cryonics Society helped the funeral director get Mihak through the initial stages of cryonic suspension. After two days, however, grim reality had to be faced. Mrs. Mihak was essentially impecunious, and the other relatives were reluctant to assume financial responsibility for the body. Mihak was thawed, and inasmuch as he was a World War II veteran, was given a military funeral in the Long Island National Cemetery.

Fifteen or 16 individuals are reported to have been cryonically suspended. Experts have, however, indicated that some of these individuals have since been thawed. In addition to whole bodies, one couple sent a tissue specimen of their drowned son to be frozen and stored, on the slight chance that ultimately science might be able to reconstruct or regenerate the individual, in the same manner as is now [in 1973] possible with some plants such as a carrot. The “patients” in permanent storage are widely scattered—some in a facility in Long Island, some in a facility in Southern California and others throughout the country.

There does not seem to be a real common denominator in terms of the frozen vanguard. It is a population of both sexes, various ages, of differing economic circumstances, and dissimilar occupational, educational and social characteristics. According to N. L. Ross, in an article in the August 13, 1972, Washington Post, Ettinger himself has asked: “Who were these frozen corpses in life? Their one common bond…was their love of life. Otherwise they ranged in age from 8 to 74, were of all three major religious faiths and many occupations, and died of a variety of causes: heart attack, cancer, kidney disease, adrenal failure and even suicide.” Those who made their own decision, however, did apparently seem to have one thing in common—they all preferred the frozen postponement of their destiny to the absolute finality of the grave.

Candidates for Freezing

Active members of the cryonics society who have themselves contracted to be frozen upon death or who have had some member of their immediate family frozen, share, above all else, a deep-seated concern regarding their eventual demise. Such individuals stress the fact that they have spent considerable time reflecting upon their own death. When questioned concerning the nature of these reflections, Saul Kent, secretary of the New York Cryonics Society, explained, “When you die you have the very nauseous feeling, I suppose, that everyone else in the world is alive and that you’re the only one dying, you feel the whole world is deserting you … And beyond this there’s the fear of disappearing, of not being, which is a very profound fear.”

Activists in the movement firmly believe that their lives are worthwhile or highly meaningful. The cryonics movement represents a vehicle for perpetuating man’s existence. So strong is this desire that for many the movement may represent a substitute religion. Unwilling to accept the promises of organized religions regarding a spiritual afterlife, cryonics members opt for a type of materialistic, active mastery over their own destinies. An unusually high proportion of cryonics members have bomb shelters and fly their own planes—giving another indication of an unwillingness to place their lives in someone else’s hands.

According to intensive interviews and content analysis of cryonics publications, the large majority of cryonics advocates are atheists with above-average education and lower-middle to middle socioeconomic status. Many are devotees of science fiction.

Our technology-oriented society places a high value on innovation and novelty. Western societies have tended to deify science. Our superb research labs and splendorous science buildings on university campuses are our temples of science, the white smocked practitioners, the priesthood, and our gigantic research budgets, the offerings of supplicants. Science presumably also has an aura of adventure. For the layman, to be an intimate participant in a scientific undertaking of possible historical import is a truly exhilarating experience.

Many persons have been drawn into the cryonics movement because of the chance to be at the pioneering forefront of new discovery. Steven Mandell, the science-fiction fan, stands as an example. His mother described his scientific appetite in an interview in the March 1969 issue of Cryonics Reports:

If my son, Steven, would be one of the lucky ones who could be brought back and made physically well 200 years from now, I think he’d have a ball. He’d love to learn anything that was new and futuristic. He was the kind of kid who would have liked to have been in the first rocket to the moon and he’d have a ball. I hope that it will be a good and better world. We don’t know, of course. But I think he’d love it.

One wall of a Long Island cryonic storage facility is decorated with a floor-to-ceiling mural of the moon and outer space. This particular mural has been frequently used as a backdrop when photographing a patient being placed in a cryocapsule.

On yet another level, the cryonics movement offers a strong element of fellowship, camaraderie, and ingroupness that is attractive and fulfilling to the membership. It represents, in effect, a community of intellectual adventure and shared participation in the novel and the unknown. The president of the New York Cryonics Society described this phenomenon to L. R. Chevalier. “As soon as you get into this movement, it changes you,” he said. “It’s ‘us,’ and the rest of you are ‘the others.’“

The discussion meetings, the fund-raising banquets and dances, the conventions and perhaps most of all the group effort often required to implement the cryonic suspension decision of a recently dead convert has thrown the members together in an enterprise of shared endeavor and adventure. The movement even proved to be a fertile setting for romance and marriage. On Saturday, May 18, 1968, Karl Werner, vice president of the Cryonics Society of New York, and Glenda Allen, treasurer, were married by a minister from the Founding Church of Scientology. There is undoubtedly some appeal in being involved in a fellowship of the “enlightened.” Some of the leaders and spokesmen for the movement have become national “celebrities” as a result of their widespread publicity in popular periodicals and their numerous appearances on radio and television shows. The fame from being involved may well be more personally rewarding than the ultimate realization of the long-term objective of the movement.

Icy Salvation

A manifest long-term goal of cryonics members is physical immortality; yet even this lofty ideal is tempered with stark realism. Both officers and rank-and-file members of the movement who were interviewed made it clear that at this stage of technological development the chances of revival are admittedly quite minimal, yet a chance, however slim, does exist. As one cryonics spokesman told Chevalier, “If there’s a chance that I can come back to life, I’m going to take that chance … after all, it’s really the only crap game in town. If you’re cremated or embalmed and buried to rot in the ground, you’re through. If you’re frozen, you have a chance.”

The prospect of death also arouses anxieties concerning the physical deterioration of the body. The cryonics movement has apparently attracted a large number of individuals who cannot face the thought of decomposing after death. In all interviews conducted, references were continually made to the repulsiveness of decaying, rotting or decomposing after death. Gillian Cummings, for example, told N. L. Ross of her sense of elation upon seeing her father encapsulated, in seeing him as she had remembered him, and of her reassurance in knowing that the worms weren’t getting him. The frozen “patient” retains a lifelike appearance. One cryonics society official said, in referring to a suspended body and the accumulation of frost on his face, “The frost is due to condensation. . . . When you wipe him off, he looks as good as he did the day he died.”

Relatives of suspended loved ones apparently find comfort in this aspect of cryonic suspension. The son of Mildred Harry, who paid a substantial amount to have his mother frozen, says he is “very satisfied with the arrangements and happy every time he sees his mother’s freckles beneath her make-up; she also wears purple robes and jewelry.”

Cryonic suspension permits a redefinition of death itself as survivors conceptualize the deceased person as simply “frozen but not gone.” Steven Mandell’s mother, for example, has stated:

When Steven was placed in the capsule, I was present and I didn’t find it hard. There’s nothing cemetery-like about it, or death-like. It’s scientific. It’s like having a patient people are working on, or trying to help. I feel very strongly that freezing a person is almost like doing a medical experiment on them. There’s certainly nothing to lose—they’re dead. Science has a great future and certainly, if there’s any chance at all for Steven or for somebody else because of Steven, we haven’t lost anything. Steven certainly hasn’t.

Russ Le Croix Van Norden, the husband of Marie Phelps Sweet, speaks of his wife as “an arrested entity whom I hope to recover, although I don’t know when,” according to H. Junker in an article in The Nation (April 1968). Ann Deblasio’s husband maintains a perpetual Christmas tree in the storage facility where his wife’s capsule is kept and for a time visited her capsule daily. Gillian Cummings had difficulty initially adjusting to her father’s death. After she saw the lifelike appearance of her father in the capsule, she even began to spend some nights at the storage facility in order to be close to him. The motto of the cryonics group is “Never Say Die.”

The Melting of a Social Movement

The muezzin cry of Robert C. W. Ettinger was heard, but few heeded the call. In the years since his book first appeared, less than a dozen and a half have actually made the icy trip to “storage.” The total membership of the New York Cryonics Society, once numbering in the hundreds, is now down to a few dozen and no formal meetings of the group has been held since 1971. Other state groups have experienced a similar decline in membership and participation. Subscriptions to Immortality dropped to the point where publication has ceased. Cryonic suspension storage facilities such as the one on Long Island are still in operation, but with minimal occupancy. In a few instances, storage facilities had no individuals in cryonic suspension, permanent or otherwise. Some of the firms that had hoped to ride the tidal wave (or glacier) of consumer demand are now defunct. Popular interest has dwindled and the scientific community displays something less than enthusiastic optimism concerning the viable prospects of cryonic suspension and ultimate revival.

To what elements can the melting of this social movement be attributed? First, perhaps, there is the very factor that first attracted many—the excitement of being in the vanguard of scientific discovery. Exhilaration, unfortunately, gives way to tedium and ennui in the face of frustration, failure, or lack of progress. The faithful expressed an awareness that scientific breakthroughs in reviving frozen corpses might be long in coming, but their span of patience was presumably shorter than they realized. When there were no dramatic scientific developments, many simply lost interest.

Money appears to have been a significant factor in the decline of the movement. The public membership response even at the peak of its appeal was never sufficient to finance the formal aspects of the movement adequately. The aspiring cryonics business ventures apparently did not succeed for the same reason. Cryonic internment and subsequent storage and maintenance are expensive. Ultimately, of course, volume might have brought the price down, but for many individuals an approximate initial outlay of $10,000 and a subsequent $600 to $1,200 per year maintenance fee simply brought their icy aspirations down to a warmer reality. As previously mentioned, in at least one instance a wife had her husband temporarily suspended in dry ice only to discover that she did not have the financial resources for permanent suspension. Others who, like Marie Sweet, went so far as to take out insurance policies against such an exigency were denied permanent suspension after death inasmuch as their estates could not afford capsules. Still others had economic problems once suspended. James H. Bedford, the first man frozen, left an estate of $100,000 to the California Cryonics Society to ensure his perpetual maintenance. At the time of his suspension, Bedford’s son, Norman, gave evidence of complying fully with his father’s wishes. More recently, however, he has gone to court in an attempt to break his father’s will. The owner of a California storage facility claims he was never paid for four people whom he froze. Of those in suspension who were later defrosted at the wish of relatives, at least two were buried and one was preserved, but in a less financially burdensome formaldehyde solution. The insurance company refused to pay on Steven Mandell’s’ policy, and even with a donation from his mother, the officials of the New York Cryonics Society were still placed in the position of initially subsidizing his suspension. In the case of Steven Mandell and Ann Deblasio, it became necessary to stage a fund-raising dinner-dance to add to the depleted coffers of the “Ann Deblasio-Steven Mandell Memorial Foundation.”

The beneficial aspects of novelty finally wore off, and the estranging experience of the bizarre set in. The popular press became less charitable, and ridicule and derision became more common. “Patients” were acidly referred to as “corpsicles” by some wags. The followers were labeled by critics as a “cult,” an offensive term to some cryonics enthusiasts. Rather than being billed as the scientific vanguard, some cryonics spokesmen were instead being presented more as the lunatic fringe. The common bond of exhilaration and pioneering commitment to the novel began to erode and the participants were increasingly forced to close ranks until finally only a small hard core of the faithful (many of whom had a financial stake in cryonics) remained. Although at one time a panel of distinguished scientists and physicians was listed in cryonics publications as the “Scientific Advisory Council,” by 1972 the Journal of the American Medical Association was editorializing against the “propriety of physicians letting their names be used in cryonics literature.”

In their enthusiasm to sell the cause, followers may well have oversold it. Some have publicly boasted of their intention to become “immortal supermen”; other spokesmen have suggested future “super armies that never wear out, thanks to a continued supply of rejuvenated men.” Such remarks are hardly calculated to convey the image of rational reform. The cryonics movement, like any other attempt at scientific and social innovation, inevitably attracts its share of eccentrics, and writers who covered some of the early conferences and meetings of cryonics groups reported “odd mixtures of people,” and specifically mentioned “vegetarians.” Funeral directors, clergymen, physicians and public officials, never enthusiastic as a whole about cryonics, are presumably more rigid in their posture of opposition than in the early days, when innovation and prospect outweighed practical disadvantages.

Cryonic suspension techniques may one day be perfected. Given the cultural orientation of the American public, it is not surprising that a number of individuals became sufficiently enamored of postponing the inevitability of death that they would consent to being frozen and stored, or collaborate with such a procedure for their friends and family. Cryonic suspension for a time met various unfulfilled needs for many individuals. But given the seeming slowness of scientific implementation of the cryonics hypothesis, the exigencies of cost and effort, and the erosion of popular support, the movement was doomed to inertia. For the near future, the prospect of frozen immortality seems to have melted.