A Never-Say-Die Investment

The people selling cryonics want you to live forever. How? By freezing your brain in liquid nitrogen, of course.

Sidney Maurer's hair is thinning, his face deeply lined with wrinkles, his eyes heavy with age. He lives on the third floor of a nondescript Pompano Beach high-rise overlooking golf greens and fairways. His heart is faltering, and his hearing is not what it used to be. He could be any 70-year-old retired New York transplant pondering his own mortality in South Florida, perhaps the country's capital of natural death. But Maurer is different. When his time comes, and he's sure it's on its way, rather than go gently to the grave, he'll be betting 30 grand on another option. Immortality.

"I know my chances of coming back are probably one in a million," says Maurer, the unlikely South Florida poster boy for the bizarre science (or science fiction) of cryonics. It's a procedure that attempts to stave off the inevitable by freezing all or part of the human body in liquid nitrogen for future reanimation.

"There's not much chance of it working," concedes Maurer, sole representative in South Florida for the Michigan-based Cryonics Institute. "Still, you never know and it's better than being completely disintegrated. I like the fact that I've still got a shot."

Maurer is one of some three-dozen South Floridians who have signed over their future corpses to a deep-freeze storage facility. Four such facilities exist in this country (none in Florida) where the heads or bodies of about 80 people are being stored in fiberglass cryostats, which are like big, white freezers pumped full of liquid nitrogen. The customers will lie in a frozen state until technology is able to revive them and, they hope, cure what killed them.

"I believe in God, but I'm not sure there's a heaven," says 68-year-old Austin Tupler, owner of Tupler Trucking in Fort Lauderdale. "Cryonics is just a chance, but it's something." Tupler has been involved with cryonics since the late '60s when he attended a meeting on the subject at the University of Miami and helped form the now-defunct South Florida Cryonics Society. At its height the organization had more than 30 members and conducted its own freezings. A decade ago it was absorbed by Arizona-based Alcor, the country's largest cryonics company and the place where Tupler and his three sons will lie frozen, awaiting a scientific miracle.

Conventional cryonics wisdom predicts that, if they are ever revived, only their brains will be of any use. By that time, believers hope, human cloning will allow a new body, or brain receptacle, to replace the old and withered original. This explains why many of the 400 or so people signed up to be flash-frozen are opting for the cheaper, head-only option. Maurer's nonprofit Cryonics Institute freezes entire bodies only (severed heads, they say, are too much of a public-relations nightmare) and at less than a third of the price of other facilities, which charge upward of $100,000 for the full-body procedure. For most "patients," as the suspended deceased are called, the high cost of life everlasting is covered by life insurance benefits signed over to a cryonics facility.

Although the first human body was frozen 31 years ago, cryonics remains a hard sell. For most people it is still the stuff of science fiction fantasy, scarcely legitimized by big-screen depictions like last summer's Austin Powers -- Mike Myers plays a cryonically preserved spy from the '60s who is brought back in the '90s to save the world -- or Woody Allen's 1973 slapstick cryonics spoof, Sleepers.

South Florida's large elderly population has been a particularly resistant market. "Older people are too set in their ways," explains Robert Ettinger, the 80-year-old founder of the Cryonics Institute and the man credited with coming up with the concept more than 30 years ago. Ettinger's mother and first wife are among the 29 bodies stored in the Cryonics Institute's drab Midwestern headquarters. "There are lots of examples of the reversibility of death," he says. "People have been revived after drowning and electrocution. There will be a time when people won't die of natural causes anymore."

That notion is exactly what drew Sidney Maurer to cryonics when he first heard of the concept on a radio program some 30 years ago. "I've always enjoyed life," he says. "I said to myself, 'Gee it's really too bad we have to die so young. I'm not ready to say goodbye.'"

Patty Ralph, a Plantation undertaker who has agreed to prepare Maurer's body for shipment to Michigan, says she doesn't expect cryonics to replace burial or cremation as the preferred form of postmortem disposal anytime soon. Ralph says she has only received one other inquiry about cryonics, though she has yet to prepare a corpse for the procedure. Ideally a body should be frozen within an hour or two of death, and most facilities won't freeze a corpse after 48 hours have passed.

Regardless of the apparent obstacles, Maurer is determined to try to drum up business in South Florida for the nonprofit organization that for $30,000 in life insurance will someday lower his body temperature to minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit, seal his rigid corpse in a cryostat, and then maybe, just maybe, bring him back to life. So far he has spent $2000 of his own money promoting the cryonics cause in newspaper ads and on his Internet home page. His Website pictures the proud optimist, who looks and sounds more like a used-car salesman than someone promoting a New-Age pseudoscience, alongside his 27-year-old wife and their four-month-old baby daughter.

Maurer, a former schoolteacher from Queens whose first wife left him ten years ago, has spent the last decade in search of another fountain of youth, young women. After years of frustration working the South Florida singles scene, he found his young bride during a wife-hunting expedition to the Philippines. He realizes he may not be around to see his daughter reach puberty but dreams of someday returning from death to watch her reach old age.

Maurer's enthusiasm for cryonics has not been contagious. His ads have brought numerous crank calls but only two interested parties, one of whom was an HIV-positive man without life insurance or any other means of paying for the procedure. "I didn't expect to get much of a response," he says. "People still think it's a crazy idea."

Even his best friend, a former pro-basketball player named Danny Finn, finds the whole idea a little unsettling. "I told him I wasn't really interested," says Finn. "Let's say you do come back. You wouldn't know a soul. You have an old body in a new world, what's the point? You have to think you are awfully special if you think you deserve to be around that long."

Contact Jay Cheshes at his e-mail address:
Jay_Cheshes@newtimesbpb.com

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