Cryonics, August 1984

by Mike Darwin

On warm summer evenings like this one when the days activities have left me full of restlessness and rushing thought I ride out into the cooling California dusk on my ten-speed. Often I navigate up and down tree-shaded suburban corridors past quarter-million dollar homes and watch the flow of other people’s lives. Some nights, like this one, now drawing to a close, are special. Dusk falls with a rosy glow that fills the West and the moon hangs in a clear, azure blue California sky, framed by towering palms.

As the dusty heat of day is absorbed by falling darkness I am drawn off the corridors of life to the dusty lane that leads to the cemetery. It is safe there, the entrance drive is chained; no cars with blinding lights and roaring engines can break the silence. There is just the blacktop, the scattered stones and a lone man gliding silently on a bicycle.

This cemetery is in many ways unusual. It is nearly full now, many of the stones date to the early 1900’s. There is little space left which is not filled with row upon row of markers set flush with the earth in Forest Lawn fashion. The mausoleum, with its quaint screen doors that shut with a long spring, brings back memories of childhood; of screen doors forever slapping shut on quiet midwestern summer nights much like this one. The ashes in the columbarium just inside the doors are in big brass books and gilded Greek urns which speak of a vanished era.

The cemetery is unusual in other ways as well. It is a place where the mortal shells of some of us — cryonicists — have met with flame and turned to ash. I have taken some of their worn and broken bodies there myself. Always in the morning though, on cloudy, misty, winter days. As I ride along my mind wanders back to the last time I had business in the cemetery.

The man who runs the place is not much given to philosophy, which I suppose is to our benefit. Cemeteries like this one are hard to come by — for cryonicists. The manager is cheerful as he leads us back to the retorts. These glowing ovens are the salvation of cemeteries like this one — cemeteries too full — with endowments too small. The manager remarks that he doesn’t want to know what’s in the cardboard coffin. He laughs and says he doesn’t care to look. “What’s inside is your business” he says with a smile. “Just have the paperwork in order!”

While waiting for the flame to do its work the two of us from ALCOR wander over grass still wet with morning dew. In the distance the steady, muffled jet-like roar of the retort speaks of flesh speeding into dust. What makes a man a man? Is it brain, or body? Is it both? As we walk over wet grass and look at stones which struggle to speak an entire life in a name, a date, and a word or two I wonder. I think of changes going on inside the retort. Of hands that sewed, and touched with love, of hands that moved in endless motion; making change, washing faces, pushing lawn mowers. Of arms that held loved ones and moved once sleek young bodies through summer-warm water. What makes us what we are? Where are those people whose hands and bodies were turning into ash as I walked quietly among the stones and markers?

I know that despite the flames their minds are safe. And with them, as in a seed, lay all the plans for hands and arms and running legs. Plans encoded there for youth and strength, not withered limbs and worn hearts that served until they broke. And minds. What of the minds? Minds with memories of hands filled with a lifetime of sweet sensation. Minds full of thoughts and tastes and quiet moments. Great satisfaction comes from that thought. From knowing they are still there. From seeing past the glowing pile of embers raked out of gray ovens.

Jimmy, the little man who runs the retorts and packs away the ashes, brings out a smoking metal box of glowing embers. It was once part of a man. The least important part. Not his soul. Two hours at 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit and that is all that’s left; embers glowing cherry red. The modern electric doors of the retort slide soundlessly shut. The glowing LED readout begins to climb again. The temperature which dropped when the ashes were raked out is beginning to recover. There is another man ready to go in — this one with his body and his soul, both of which soon will pass away forever.

Outside, Jimmy spreads the ashes out on a large stone slab to cool. There is a strong, familiar odor. Surprizingly, it is DMSO. Strong and cloying, it alone has survived the raging flames. The ashes cool and soon with gloved hands Jimmy starts the sorting. Large pieces go in coffee cans where they are pounded with a section of steel pipe and ground into smaller pieces. What remains is shaken through a screen. The fines, which are all that remains of flesh and blood, are scattered on the ground. Indeed, the earth is littered with such ashes. I wonder at the ruins of minds around us. What of the brains which thought and pondered life’s meaning? What of the minds that dreaded thinking of this moment they’ve become forever? Finally the ashes of the bones, reduced to porous pebbles are placed within a plastic box and carted unceremoniously to the office, where Jimmy says that we can call for them.

I am back now in the present. It is eight ‘o clock and Jimmy’s locking up. One time when we were there to burn a body Jimmy told us why he did this work. “I’m not very smart” he said, “that’s why I do this job, it’s all I can handle.” He is simple and his honesty is direct and disarming. Jimmy is old, eighty-one he says. His face has been reshaped by surgery. No doubt some cancer years ago. The scars are old and faded. As he locks up he asks me if it’s dangerous to ride my bike on open roads so late at night. “It is” I say, and comment that that’s why the cemetery is so appealing. As he gets into his truck Jimmy says he’s thought about a moped for himself. “Why not!” I ask with bright enthusiasm. “Oh, I guess I want to live another year or two,” he says. “I know I haven’t long to go, but I want the year or two I may have left.”

I wave goodbye as he drives off and I ride back past the gate among the legions of the dead. I cannot help but think of them. Hundreds of them, perhaps a thousand or more. The radio playing in my ears cannot drown out the thoughts. I glide past stones with names, a tiny fraction of the information that made a man or woman once a person. The music comes hauntingly into my ears flowing down inside my helmet. Sometimes the songs are sad, sometimes they race with life. That is the essence of the cemetery. There were people here. Men much like me. People who dreamed, children who thought about walking on Mars on nights like this when it glows red on the horizon. Some of the children have barely kissed the earth. The children’s section is one of the few that is not full up. There are broken dreams there. Memories of starry nights like this one which have fallen to dust. There is a fresh grave with a new stone. I wonder if the boy buried there longed to see a Martian sunset and dreamed of life, adventure-full stretching before him without limit? What of the memories going to dust around me?

As I glide on in the gathering darkness I am aware of the sweet scents around me. The jasmine is in bloom; the white flowers are pale specks in the rosy light. As I race down curving lanes it comes to me that it is good to be alive. Deep sorrow rushes over me for those who have vanished here and lost their lives.

Are there words to say what they are missing? Is there a price for a summer evening with a full moon and jasmine-scented breeze? I am filled with the urge to shout at them, to shake their dusty bones and rotting flesh and tell them to wake up, to stop missing out on being alive! But it is hopeless for they aren’t really here. I wonder how much longer I have before I join them. Will I be frozen when I die? For the love of life and all that’s in it will I survive? I wonder and I worry. It mars the glorious realization that it is good to be alive. I don’t wonder at all at what it’s like to be dead. I know what it’s like to be dead. It isn’t like anything at all. It is just not being there anymore. It is not feeling the sweet promise of being alive, it is not feeling strong legs move a bicycle swiftly forward, it is not dreaming of standing on Mars and watching its moons race madly across the jet black sky. Most of all, it’s losing not just what you’ve been, the memories and loves and hopes we carry with us, it losing all we could have been. It’s not just the loss of a finite past with all the security it carries with it, it’s losing all of that which is yet to be. An infinity of thoughts and dreams and worlds and new ideas wait out there for us — if we live. Those, poor, poor people who’ve vanished into dust around me will never know the things I’ll know, the thoughts I’ll think — if I live.

I think about that, about my body which is falling apart. I think about my efforts to stop the inexorable fall towards nothingness. I hope my doctors are wrong with their worried looks. I hope the medications work for me again. I hope that if all else fails that those I love and trust will get me frozen and keep me there. I hope they’ll fight for me, as I will fight for them and that somehow they’ll realize just how much my past and most of all my tomorrows mean. I hope they’ll think about the countless souls whose thoughts and dreams have passed away forever and that they’ll fight for me–should all else fail.

I think about the waiting not so much as I think about the future. I feel better now about tomorrow than I have felt in years. I can thank Eric Drexler for that. I can thank him for a fresh new vision of tomorrow where molecular machines exist and scraps of people grow whole and walk the earth again. I thank him for his book [Engines of Creation] and the optimism it’s given me. I used to doubt that those who wait were coming back. I wondered how we’d get them out and make them whole again. Even though I knew the answer I sat and worried. I still worry, but not about the biology so much as before. I think I know the game plan that will be used. I see the shape of things to come.

I hope that in my lifetime molecular machines will be made which will free me from this evening’s worries. As I ride along I fantasize about a drop of cloudy liquid on my tongue full of virus-sized machines. Machines small enough to multiply inside my aged and damaged cells. Machines smart enough to bring order to chaos. Machines strong enough to turn age to youth and death to life. If only I can last till then.

If I am forced to wait in liquid nitrogen my sole concern is that the wait be long enough. That I can wait until the era of molecular engineering. I worry only at the patience and the judgment of those who follow. I worry only at the common sense of a world in love with death. I worry about a world with cemeteries. A world where memories fall to ash in furnaces and mouldering earth. I worry at a world where children never get to walk on Mars.

Despite the worry it is good to be alive.

It is good to be alive.

It is even worth waiting for.