Is death the end of life or a gateway to a hereafter? Millions of people have reported near-death and out-of-body experiences in the last century alone. For millennia, major religions such as Christianity and Islam have promoted the existence of an afterlife. Literature, religious texts, and anecdotes are brimming with stories of reincarnation, resurrection, and immortality. Yet, despite their influence on cultural habits that sometime lead to both inspired utopian communities but also to persecution of others, there has been no comprehensive and rigorous, scientific study of global reports about near-death and other experiences, or of how belief in immortality influences human behavior. That will change with the award of a three-year, $5 million grant by the John Templeton Foundation to John Martin Fischer, distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, to undertake a rigorous examination of a wide range of issues related to immortality. The John Templeton Foundation, located near Philadelphia, supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will.
"We will be very careful in documenting near-death experiences and other phenomena, trying to figure out if these offer plausible glimpses of an afterlife or are biologically induced illusions," Fischer said. "Our approach will be uncompromisingly scientifically rigorous. We're not going to spend money to study alien-abduction reports. We will look at near-death experiences and try to find out what's going on there -- what is promising, what is nonsense, and what is scientifically debunked. We may find something important about our lives and our values, even if not glimpses into an afterlife." The Immortality Project will promote collaborative research between scientists, philosophers and theologians. A major goal will be to encourage interdisciplinary inquiry into the family of issues relating to immortality -- and how these bear on the way we conceptualize our own lives.
Cryonics In Riverside
It is perhaps not so strange that studies in immortality would be centered in Riverside. The city was once the location for Alcor, one of the leading organizations to promote cryonics, that is, a preservation technique for damaged bodies that cannot be sustained by more traditional medical methods. By preserving the body now, the hope is that technology will advance to a point in the future whereby the body can be resuscitated. The underlying notion is a spark of "life" still exists despite legal and medical definitions of death.
In the 1960s, Robert Ettinger founded the cryonics (cryonic hibernation) movement and authored The Prospect of Immortality. An inspiration for many like-minded people, his book covered the practical, legal, ethical, and moral impact of freezing and reviving human beings. Mainly, he wanted to layout a scientific and technological argument in order to dispel misleading notions of the process, such as those depicted in horror and sci-fi B movies.
In 1972, Fred and Linda Chamberlain incorporated Alcor as the Alcor Society for Solid State Hypothermia in the State of California. According to organizational history on the company's website, it was on July 16, 1976 that Alcor performed its first human cryopreservation. Alcor grew slowly in its early years. The organization counted only 50 members in 1985, which was the year it cryopreserved its third patient. In 1986, some of Alcor's members formed Symbex, a small investment company that funded a building in Riverside, California, for lease by Alcor, which moved from Fullerton, California to the new building in Riverside in 1987.
In one case history related to Riverside, on May 8, 1988, a long-time cryonicist and Alcor member, Bob (referred to by his first name only in order to protect the privacy of the member's family) was placed into whole-body cryonic suspension at Alcor's Riverside, California facility. The patient was a 72-year-old man with a long history of arteriosclerosis and congestive heart failure. There is a fascinating account of the procedures on the Alcor website. Excerpts from it are listed below in chronological order from his arrival at the Riverside facility to his final encapsulation in the cryogenic housing unit:
An hour and 25 minutes after his arrival in the facility, surgery to open Bob's chest and connect him to the heart-lung machine was begun. The surgery to cannulate Bob's aorta and right heart for blood washout and cryoprotective perfusion proved enormously difficult. Bob's chest was a mass of adhesions and scars from two previous bypass operations.
At 2:14 AM on the morning of May 9, blood washout commenced. Washout proceeded with extreme difficulty due to the massive clotting that was present. Initially the right atrium was left open to allow large clots to be vented into the operative field and sucked out (along with draining venous perfusate) with a wide-bore suction line. Once the largest of these clots were expelled, a standard venous return cannula was placed in the right heart and perfusion was continued.
At 4:37 AM cryoprotective perfusion began using a 5% glycerol solution in the new sucrose-HEPES perfusate. Hydroxyethyl starch was present in 5% concentration as the colloid (used to minimize fluid accumulation (edema) between cells). The cryoprotective ramp was begun at 4:41 AM.
At 10:15 AM, ice packs were removed from Bob and he was placed inside two large plastic bags. He was then submerged in a tank of silicone oil (Silcool) which had been precooled to -10°C.
By maintaining a 10°C to 15°C differential between surface and core temperatures, Bob was slowly cooled to -79°C over the next 35 hours by gradual addition of dry ice to the Silcool bath.
On Thursday, May 12, a team of Alcor members...assembled at the facility to transfer Bob from dry ice to liquid nitrogen storage. The Alcor dual-patient cryogenic dewar was rocked into horizontal position after being precooled to approximately -100°C. The metal tank used for Silcool/dry ice cooling (and now drained of Silcool and completely filled with dry ice) was lifted out of its insulating container and transferred to two rolling dollies so that it could be wheeled into position in the central work area of the facility.
On May 17th, the dewar housing Bob was filled to the top with liquid nitrogen and Bob entered long term cryogenic storage. He remains submerged in liquid nitrogen in the Alcor facility in Riverside -- waiting.
By 1990 Alcor had grown to 300 members. In response to concerns that the California facility was too small and vulnerable to earthquake risk, the organization purchased a building in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1993 and moved its patients to it in 1994.
The source of one of the most persistent urban legends associated with cryogenics is in Anaheim, an hour's drive south of Riverside, in Orange County. The most notable person to be unknowingly associated with cryogenics was Walt Disney, who died on December 15, 1966. Over the decades, the rumor has persisted that Disney arranged for the cryopreservation of his body under Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean," waiting the day when he will be resurrected and perhaps create an additional amusement park--Zombie Land.
Part of the fuel behind the rumors of his possible interest in resurrection via yet to come technology could have been Disney's association with imagining the future in his Disneyland attractions, which would have included, at the time, the monorail and Tomorrowland. Additionally, there were the animatronic, life-size figures speaking and moving as if practicing for the day when they will be free-thinking robots after a human brain transplant or receiving downloaded mind-data, depending on which technology is developed first.
This legend is so strong that the location of his frozen body is a guessing game. After CalArts opened in Valencia, California in 1971, it was rumored that his body was ensconced there in a basement. In the early 1990s, two art students Burt Payne and Steve Hillenberg were inspired to create the Frozen Walt Doll. Along with being a commentary on Hollywood myth-making, the first two editions, Black Tie and Red Tie, supposedly financed their $10,000 annual tuition education at CalArts.
A Cinematic Meaning of Life
Contemplating the possible avenues of inquiry with The Immortality Project, John Fisher says, "if you believe we exist as immortal beings, you could ask how we could survive death as the very same person in an afterlife. If you believe in reincarnation, how can the very same person exist if you start over with no memories?"
According to a press announcement from UCR about Fisher's initiative, other questions philosophers may consider are: Is immortality potentially worthwhile or not? Would existence in an afterlife be repetitive or boring? Does death give meaning to life? Could we still have virtues like courage if we knew we couldn't die? What can we learn about the meaning of our lives by thinking about immortality?
The last question in this litany is a striking one. One answer is brought strikingly to the forefront in another Inland Empire city, Palm Springs.
"Forever Marilyn," a 26-foot-tall statue of the late actress was erected there this past May, after being on view in Chicago. It is located at Palm Canyon and Tahquitz Canyon Way, where it will remain until June 2013.
The sculpture by Seward Johnson, the 80-year-old artist and Johnson & Johnson heir who's known for casting famous images into giant sculptures, re-created the scene from the 1955 film "The Seven Year Itch" in which a drafty New York subway grate lifts Monroe's skirt to tantalizing heights.
Attention around the statue heated up this August, as it is the 50th anniversary of Monroe's death, who was born 86 years ago, on June 1, 1926, and died Aug. 5, 1962. Anyone looking to find accidental connections between disparate events might view the press announcement of Fisher's Immortality Project on July 31st, five days before Monroe's anniversary death, as uncannily coincidental for Inland Empire afterlife-aficionados.
But, back to Fisher's question relative to Monroe's out-sized memorial, "What can we learn about the meaning of our lives by thinking about immortality?" Or, to rephrase the last few words, "...by thinking about Marilyn Monroe's immortality?"
Marco Brambilla is a bi-coastal, contemporary artist who has perhaps best answered this re-engineered question.
In his 2011 survey exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, he included Evolution (Megaplex). It is the second in a series of large-scale video collages and the first of his works to be executed in stereoscopic 3D. The history of humankind is illustrated as a vast scrolling video mural depicting the spectacle of human conflict across time through the lens of cinematic genres such as science fiction, war, and western films. The prior work was Civilization (2008) that presented a satirical take on the concepts of eternal punishment and celestial reward. Brambilla's process involves looping hundreds of individual channels of video that are blended into an ever-evolving landscape. In much of his work, there is the feeling of moving from the depths of hell to the gates of heaven, all the while making a sly commentary on the pomposity of big-budget "epic" films, whether they come from directors Cecil B. DeMille a century ago or James Cameron today.
Perhaps then there will still be tunnels of light reported by near-death returnees, but instead of greeting other deceased family members or angels, it will really be more like sitting in a movie theater in which the figures at the end of the tunnel are our favorite actors. In other words, Brambilla may suggest that even Hollywood's relentless entertainment industry will have seeped into our most personal experience--death. Your body will die alone but in the afterlife your spirit will sit with other fans watching your favorite movie--over and over.
Life is Death
A less cynical response to Fisher's question that asks "what we can learn about the meaning of our lives by thinking about immortality," would suggest that despite the best efforts by Alcor or fans of a frozen, youthful image of what would now be a fifty-year old corpse, is that we still fear death quite a bit.
It is still very hard to believe that after emerging from so very little as organisms, and then achieving a level of self-awareness that has allowed us to land a rover on Mars in early August (nicely coincidental with the timing of the announcement of The Immortality Project and Monroe's anniversary death), that we will then die.
Freezing bodies and erecting gargantuan statues of dead celebrities are strategies for fleeing from the reality of death that will fail. However, these schemes are not unique to our lifetime. Ancient Egyptian artifacts can be found just a few miles north of Riverside at California State University San Bernardino's Robert Fullerton Museum that are reminders of early attempts to freeze, or mummify, bodies over six-thousand years ago. The mammoth crucifix atop Mt. Rubidoux in the heart of Riverside and its related Easter Sunrise service (that has been in effect since 1909) is a reminder of how belief in resurrection permeates Western culture via Christian tales.
What we do know is that life precedes death. So, to fear death is to find failure in a life that did not prepare us for leaving that which is familiar in this particular, waking world. So, perhaps, one way to not fear death, and therefore, to reconsider concepts of immortality, is not to fear life. Then, our society may become less anxious over death's unknowns. Perhaps Bob will be resuscitated in his new Alcor quarters but will he feel any less anxious about having to die again?
Top Image: Marco Brambilla, Evolution, 2010. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Christopher Grimes Gallery, in Santa Monica.
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