In Russia, divorced couple fight over frozen corpses

A container of liquid nitrogen. Photo: beigephotos / Flickr, CC BY 2.0

  • On September 8, the Moscow region police received a call about an unusual theft – of containers with frozen bodies.
  • The suspect was Valeria Udalova, and the man who accused her of theft was her ex-husband, Danila Medvedev. Both were former CEOs of a cryonics company.
  • Cryonics is the practice of freezing bodies after death in the hope of reviving them, even healthy ones, in the future.

On September 8, the Moscow region police received a call about an unusual theft and were ordered to stop a truck belonging to the suspect. On a platform attached to the vehicle, they found containers with frozen bodies. They belonged to people who agreed – and paid money – to be frozen after death in hopes of being resuscitated in the future, a practice called cryonics. (It’s legal in Russia as well as the United States; the head and body of former baseball player Ted Williams are each frozen, separately, in a cryonics facility in Arizona.) cryonics works one day. But for people who think there is a chance, bodyguarding can be seen as a matter of life and death.

The woman who allegedly attempted to steal bodies was Valeria Udalova, former CEO of cryonics company KrioRus, founded in 2006. The man who accused her of theft was her ex-husband, Danila Medvedev, also former CEO of KrioRus . Udalova and Medvedev now own separate cryonics companies and are in the midst of a battle against 81 bodies of KrioRus customers.

Interest in cryopreservation

This came to a head on September 7, when Udalova allegedly broke into cryostorage near Moscow, which is now under Medvedev’s control (although Udalova claims she leases this facility). According to Medvedev’s team, Udalova and her partners walked through a metal wall of the laboratory, dumped liquid nitrogen from containers with corpses, and loaded the containers, known in the industry as “dewars,” on the truck. As workers lifted the heavy vats, the dewars would bend as if they were going to fall and break, as a leaked video shows; meanwhile, liquid nitrogen was pouring over people.

“Even paying dearly for your death in Russia cannot prevent you from being part of the criminal conflict,” wrote a Facebook user who watched the video. One of Medvedev’s partners, Dmitry Kvasnikov, claimed on Facebook on Wednesday that Udalova broke some equipment during the raid. It is therefore now difficult to maintain the dewars and fill them with liquid nitrogen. This put cryopatients “at some risk,” he said.

In total, there are around 500 frozen people all over the world. The pandemic has put additional pressure on the cryonics industry. The number of people interested in cryopreservation has hit a record high in recent months, according to the New York Times. Cryonics companies are transparent that the technology to resuscitate bodies does not exist, and they do not guarantee another life for their patients. What they guarantee is the preservation of the bodies. But accidents like the one in Russia show that even the task of keeping bodies frozen can go very, very badly.

Becoming a cryopatient doesn’t come cheap. KriosRus customers pay $ 36,000 to freeze their entire body. Freezing only your brain (“neuropreservation”) costs a lot less – around $ 15,000. But this is a deal over the rates for the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona. Alcor, which stores 184 bodies or brains, offers preservation of the whole body for $ 200,000 and the brain only for $ 80,000. Some clients, who signed the contracts during their lifetime, took out loans to pay for the expensive service. Cryonics can also be practiced for pets. In addition to humans, KrioRus also stores 47 frozen animals, including dogs, cats, parrots, rabbits, and hamsters. The cost of cryopreserving a pet depends on its size. Udalova says she cryopreserved her mother and dog, and also pledged to be frozen after her own death

The process works like this: After death, the body is transported to the facility in regular ice or dry ice. Once the patient is in the lab, surgeons perform the “cryoprotective infusion,” in which they wash all the blood from the body and infuse the cadaver with cryoprotectants like antifreeze, which stops the formation of crystalline ice inside. of the body, because it is dangerous for the cells. Then the body is cooled and placed inside the dewar, where it is stored in liquid nitrogen at a negative temperature of 196º C.

How long will the bodies stay like this? KrioRus signs contracts with patients for 100 years; the founders believe, for some reason, that the technology to resurrect the dead will be discovered by the turn of the century. Not just to revive them, but to make them healthy. (In 2015, Medvedev and Udalova told the Town, a Russian media outlet, that half of their patients have been diagnosed with cancer.) But if such technology has not been invented by the end of the agreement, it will automatically be extended for 25 years as many times as necessary, the company promises.

But so far, KrioRus’ promises of reviving frozen bodies have been utter science fiction. No person or animal was resuscitated after cryopreservation, and there is no scientific evidence for this. already be possible. “There is reason to believe that human cloning will be possible in the future, but not resurrection,” says Ilya Kolmanovsky, Russian biologist and science journalist. It is possible that clones could be produced from cryopatients at some point, but that would require cryopreserving living body cells, not the brain or the whole body. It would also be much less appealing, as all the clones would have in common with the original person would be DNA and appearance. As Kolmanovsky puts it, a clone would not have “the personality of this patient”. But even having a clone of your frozen self walking in a few hundred years would require technological advances.

This is hardly a guarantee that your frozen body itself will fare undisturbed in the future – there have been a few reports before this latest boondoggle of abused bodies. Bob Nelson – who was the first person to cryopreserve a human in 1960 – has completely abandoned several bodies. He was a television repairman with no scientific training when he became president of the Cryonics Society of California. The organization did not have enough resources to keep clients frozen. When he ran out of money in 1975, Nelson left nine bodies in liquid nitrogen in a cemetery safe in California. Without maintenance, they decomposed. Relatives sued him and won $ 800,000.

In 2009, Larry Johnson, a former employee of Alcor, alleged in a book that workers at the Arizona settlement had mutilated Ted Williams’ frozen head a few years earlier. From his interview with CBS News, the employees decided to move the head from one container to another and they placed a tin of tuna at the bottom of the new vessel to keep the head stationary. When, a few days later, they needed to move their head again, they saw that the box was stuck to the top of the head. Then the situation worsened: workers tried to remove the box with an adjustable wrench but accidentally hit the head. (Alcor has denied these allegations.)

Udalova, who allegedly stole the frozen bodies, appears to be leaning into the chaos in the industry, joking in a video posted to YouTube on September 8 that she would be writing the book “Cryonics in Crazy Hands.” She promised that she would do everything to get Medvedev and his team arrested. Police returned the dewars to the original storage facility, Udalova said in the video, and are now investigating who the real owner of the containers is. As for the bodies themselves? It is not known what kind of damage the bodies may have suffered during the round trips. Maybe it’s for the best that they won’t live to tell the story.

The future is a partnership of Slate, New America and Arizona State University which examines emerging technologies, public policies and society.

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