Throughout history, humanity has been in search of eternal life; explorations into the deep galaxy and bio-medical projects in modern science are in one way dedicated to finding a new direction for this perpetual search. Doctor Luqman, the legendary figure of Eastern literature, was gifted with unique wisdom, which led him on a search for immortality. It is not certain whether this legendary Luqman is the same as the Luqman found in the Qur’an, but what they both share is the exceptional wisdom they were given “to be grateful to God” (31:12). One thing certain is that search for immortality and the idea of an afterlife has existed through the history of humanity. Belief in the Hereafter is the only reality that satisfies this inherent feeling. Bediuzzaman explains the benefits of believing in the Hereafter as follows:
It is only with the thought of Paradise that children, who form a great deal of humanity, can endure all the deaths around them, which appear to them to be grievous and frightening, and strengthen the morale of their weak and delicate beings. . . . It is only through the life of the hereafter that the elderly, who form another considerable part of humanity, can endure the proximity of the grave, and be consoled at the thought that their lives, to which they are firmly attached, will soon be extinguished and their fine world will come to an end. . . . It is only the thought of Hell-fire that checks the turbulent emotions of youths, the most vigorous element in the life of society, and their violent excesses, restraining them from aggression, oppression, and destruction, and ensuring that the life of society continues tranquilly. (The Ninth Ray, First Point)
If a society is deprived from the above benefits of belief in the Hereafter, people will try to find other ways to satisfy this search for immortality, as in the example of ancient Egypt. The fear of death and the desire for immortality are symbolized by the ancient Egyptian practice of mummification. The word “mummification” is derived from the Latin word mumia, meaning black bitumen. Bituminous materials were used extensively in the preservation of the body from the twenty-sixth dynasty of the Pharaohs onwards.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the body of a person was to live in the afterlife, therefore, mummification was developed; the total process took seventy days. Due to the expense of the materials involved in mummification, the pharaohs of Egypt, members of the nobility, and officials were the only people to be mummified, and they were usually buried in elaborate tombs. For religious reasons, some animals, such as baboons, cats, birds, and crocodiles were also mummified.
Mummies were placed in tombs that were designed to help the deceased live in the afterworld. The tombs were filled with all the necessities of life, such as food, tools, and treasures to ensure that the soul would return to the body, enabling the mummy to live happily.
The mummification process was used by many societies in an effort to cheat death and to achieve immortality. Modern society is no different from these ancient societies with respect to the desire to reach immortality. The only difference is the modern technology that is used to achieve immortality. Cryonics, a modern mummification technique, is a term that stems from cryogenic, the more general term given to the branch of physics that deals with extremely low temperatures. Cryonics is the practice of freezing the body of a recently deceased person to preserve it for possible resuscitation in the future. The body, which is in a state of “cryonic suspension,” is cooled to the point where molecular physical decay completely ceases. When a cure for the disease that caused the death has been found, the person may be revived and restored to good health later on.
This is not a new idea. In early 1967, a California psychology professor named James H. Bedford decided to try it. When he died of cancer, he was frozen in liquid nitrogen at 321 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. After Bedford, over a period of a few years, several dozen people were frozen in liquid nitrogen. After a while, the relatives stopped the flow of money to the cemetery crypt in Chatsworth, California. By 1987, the frozen bodies, one of those being the body of Bedford, kept in liquid nitrogen had dropped to only three in the United States, due to financial reasons. By 1994, the number of frozen bodies once again had risen, climbing to about a dozen. Another two dozen had chosen the cheaper alternative of having only their heads frozen after death. They believed that future technology would be able to provide a new body by using their DNA. Cryonics organizations have been growing rapidly, with several hundred people now being legally signed up to be frozen after death.
The type of death is very important for cryonics. Real death and legal death are not the same things. When it is no longer feasible to restore the blood circulation (i.e. restart the heart), legal death occurs. Real death occurs after the cells have irreversibly deteriorated in the minutes and hours that follow. Due to the fact that so much cellular information is lost after real death, cryonics begins after legal death has been declared.
After legal death, the body is hooked to a heart-lung machine to supply oxygen to the still living tissues. At the same time the blood is drained and some chemicals are circulated to minimize the damage caused by freezing. To protect the body, all chemical reactions are stopped by hindering translational molecular motion. This motion is stopped at 130 degrees below zero Celsius, that is “glass transition” temperature. The human body is cooled to the temperature of liquid nitrogen, -196 degrees Celsius (-320 degree Fahrenheit). The bodies are then placed in a vacuum-insulated flask, head down, so that in the event of a problem it would be the feet that would thaw first. While to date no human being in cryonic suspension has been revived, it has been proven that the bones, the skin, some tissues, the red and white blood cells, the bone marrow, human embryos, and sperm survive under deep freezing and thawing.
Some special techniques are used to reduce the damage caused by freezing. Using a procedure called vitrification, a mixture of cryoprotectant (antifreeze) compounds replaces more than 60% of the water inside the cells to prevent the tissue from freezing during cooling; the tissue becomes rigid like glass, with no ice crystal damage. On the other hand, high concentrations of cryoprotectant are toxic to cell metabolism. It is hoped that this problem will be solved and reversed in the future by nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the technology that has been developed in order to work with atoms and molecules in the future. By using this technology, the damage in the cells caused by freezing will be able to be repaired. In addition to nanotechnology, therapeutic cloning developments and stem cell research discoveries will be important in making cryonics successful. Taking into account the speed of the development of these technologies, some experts have estimated that it will take 20-100 years before humans can be successfully thawed out.
Such a process requires a great deal of money; it is not cheap to freeze oneself for future life. Prices range between a fee of $28,000 to $120,000 annually. By freezing merely the head, this price can be reduced by half.
Be it the ancient mummification methods, be it the latest expensive techniques, all these point to the unchanging human nature. Cryonics try to reach immortality in “this life”; however, this is an impossibility with today’s technology and is merely speculative with future technology. But there is a way that is possible now, and does not require great expenditure or mind-boggling technology. Bediuzzaman, in his book, The Rays, explains how we can achieve such immortality:
For example, human beings have an intense desire for immortality. Only One Who has disposal over the whole universe as though it was a palace can answer this wish; only One Who can close the door of this world and open that of the hereafter, like closing the door of one room and opening that of another can do so. Humans have thousands of desires, both negative and positive, which like the desire for immortality spread throughout the world and stretch to eternity. It is only the Single One, Who through the mystery of unity holds the whole universe in His grasp, Who, by answering these desires of human beings, can cure the two gaping wounds of impotence and want.
In other words, the ability to find immortality is something that has always been with us; it resides within us. The ancient Egyptians and modern science both spent large sums of money and much time trying to attain immortality; if only they were aware that every human has the same chance. All we need to do is to just look within ourselves
- Iskander, Zaky, An X-Ray Atlas of the Royal Mummies, University of Chicago Press, 1980.
- Harris, Steven B., “Many are cold but few are frozen.” Available online at http://www.cryonet.org
- Ettinger, Robert C.W., The Prospect of Immortality, Ria University Press, 2005.
- Nursi, Said (Bediuzzaman), The Rays, Sozler Publications, Istanbul: 2002.