Remember in “Star Wars” when Han Solo was frozen in carbonite? That’s a form of cryonics, the practice of preserving people — or just their brain — then reanimating them at some future date when there’s a cure for whatever killed them. And it’s not just science fiction.
“It’s taking your whole body or brain and storing it at low temperatures with the idea that eventually you might be able to be revived and restored to health and youth,” says Catherine Baldwin, a microbiologist. Baldwin studies cryonics, or the freezing of organisms with the goal of stopping tissues from decomposing, then reviving them in the future.
A few hundred bodies worldwide have been preserved after death this way since 1967 by companies like Alcor and the Cryonics Institute. Why so few? Well, besides being kind of creepy, scientifically unproven (so far), and not well publicized, it’s expensive.
We talked about the price tag, the process, and the popularity with Baldwin, who is the CEO of Suspended Animation in Boynton Beach, Florida. Her company handles the first step of cryopreservation: replacing bodily fluids with what’s essentially an antifreeze solution so the tissues can be safely frozen without creating damaging ice crystals.
There are a lot of variables when it comes to the price of cryonics.
“The fees can range from $30,000 total to about $200,000 total,” says Baldwin. “It’s quite a range depending on where and how you receive care.”
Here’s how it breaks down:
A team of medical professionals is on hand when you’re declared dead. Their job is to act quickly to prevent tissue degeneration.
“They replace all of your body fluids with an organ preservation solution and get you as cold as possible as quickly as possible without freezing you,” Baldwin says.
It’s important that you don’t freeze.
“If you flash froze human cells like a steak, ice would shred your cells from the inside, and then there’s nothing worth saving,” Baldwin says.
But keeping the body around zero degrees Fahrenheit (about your kitchen freezer’s temperature) protects cells from damage while the body is transported to a storage location for further preparation and long-term storage in much colder temperatures.
After this team is done, the body is shipped off to a facility by private jet, commercial airliner or, if you’re close enough, by car for the next step.
Cost: $30,000 to $60,000, depending on the method of conveyance used to transport your body. Some of those who have signed up for cryonics actually move closer to a storage facility to help defray transportation costs.
Once at the storage facility, a second team receives the body, and the first chemical perfusion is replaced with a different “cryoprotectant.” Basically, the tissues are flooded with an even more efficient human antifreeze, “a specialized solution that prevents ice formation when you’re below minus 160 degrees Celsius,” Baldwin says. That’s almost twice as cold as the coldest natural temperatures on Earth.
Cost: $10,000 to $15,000.
“The third phase is long-term storage, and who knows how long that will be,” Baldwin says. Once your cells are safe from frost, your body is laid on dry ice to drop its temperature further, then placed in a container that’s dunked headfirst into liquid nitrogen, where it will remain until medical technology advances to the degree that your body (or brain) can be reanimated. How long that will be, of course, depends on how rapidly science advances, but Baldwin’s guess is that it will be at least 50 years and quite possibly longer.
Cost: Varies by provider. Some organizations charge annual fees of hundreds of dollars until you die. Others have flat “lifetime” fees.
While there are several cryogenic organizations worldwide, there are currently only three storage facilities in the United States. Probably the best known is Alcor, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Another, the Cryonics Institute, is northeast of Detroit in Clinton Township, Michigan. A third is TransTime, in San Leandro, California. All have been around since the 1970s.
Cryonics Institute may have the lowest cost option. Its least expensive program is $28,000.
Some also save by skipping the deathbed preparation.
“Some people don’t believe they need my team’s services,” Baldwin says. “So they die in a hospital or hospice, and somebody hopefully packs them in ice and gets them cool, and a funeral director will eventually come and pick them up and ship them on ice to the Cryonics Institute. CI does a kind of perfusion and puts them in storage. It’s very no-frills.”
If that sounds kind of risky, there’s one other way to head off the high price of cryonics. Rather than storing your entire body, you can opt to store just your head for a lower price. What happens when you wake up, though?