The Long, Cold Road to Undeath

Despite the Hollywood rumors, Walt Disney's body wasn't frozen. But Ted Williams' head may be. That gives retired Microsoft software engineer Richard Gillmann an unexpected warm feeling. "People in cryonics have waited a long time hoping that a celebrity would be frozen," he says. "The publicity can make a difference in understanding the process."

It's a post-mortem process—a full body freeze or, in the case of baseball legend Williams, just the head plunged into a container of liquid nitrogen—that Gillmann and his wife have both elected to undergo after their deaths. Despite cryonics' sci-fi image, about a hundred dead are in nondecaying suspension in various "life extension" facilities, with another thousand signed up to follow. Like most cryonicists, the Gillmanns believe the unforeseen marvels of medical science could eventually cure what may kill them—"maybe microscopic robots that go through the body repairing cells and damage," as Gillmann dreamily puts it—and restore life. The couple's eventual minus-196-degree preservation is costing them $28,000 each, payable in advance by cash or life insurance to the Cryonics Institute (CI) of Michigan. (Besides four dozen human "patients," CI has two dozen frozen dogs and cats.) They're betting the long odds that death may not be a permanent state.

"We wanted to both go into it," says Gillmann, 55, of Issaquah, who has no children. "I didn't want to come back without her to come back to."

He's a sober believer of cryonics, but Gillmann says he can laugh along with the rest of us watching late-night television's running Williams gags ("I get up in the morning," David Letterman says, "and I'm watching the Martha Stewart show, and she's showing you how to properly thaw Ted Williams").

That might be because Gillmann's first exposure to cryonics was listening to Johnny Carson joke around with Robert Ettinger, the father of cryonics and CI's founder, on the old Tonight Show in the 1960s. "I sort of forgot about it after that," says Gillmann. "About five years ago, I began to reconsider it seriously."

"One thing about the Williams case," Gillmann says. "His son supposedly had him sent to Arizona [to Alcor Life Extension of Scottsdale, which charges $50,000 per head, $120,000 for the full Monty]. I don't think you can do that. My wife and I had to sign a ton of papers, make out a will, have everything notarized and witnessed. I'm interested to hear more about the court battle."

More details are expected this week, when the Splendid Splinter's daughter Bobby-Jo, 54, and son John Henry, 33, square off in a Florida court. The daughter wants Williams cremated (as baseball's greatest hitter himself reportedly wanted); the son wants him permanently frozen— reportedly to market Williams' DNA.

A Northwest cryonicist who last week attended an Alcor meeting down in the Bay Area says the company has warned, "There are lots of attacks going on, and we do not need to inadvertently generate more [by speaking to the press]. Also, keep in mind that folks making public statements as if they were from Alcor may be subpoenaed by some clueless lawyer."

But James Swayze, a Clark County quadriplegic, is not reluctant to talk; he tells me cryonics will make death a "grand adventure" for him. "Despite my woes," he says cheerfully, "I will live again and no longer be a quadriplegic thanks to the generosity of many cryonicists." Swayze's story, spread on the Internet, spurred donations to pay for his icy preservation. Even Robert Ettinger was moved, launching "The Swayze Fund" with $13,000 of his own money.

Gillmann of Issaquah recently held what he calls a Cryofest—the first regional gathering of cryonicists. A dozen showed for the potluck supper. "It was great to speak to others," says Gillmann. A major concern, all agreed, is sudden death. Die slowly, and a cryonics team can be at your side to begin the freezing process. Die suddenly, family and friends will have to put you on ice ("plain ice cubes") until help comes, Gillmann says.

I asked him about a sudden, questionable death—requiring an autopsy. Gillmann seemed to gasp. "An autopsy!" he exclaimed. "Boy, that can really wreck your chances of living again!"

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