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A cold day in Florida

Cryonics advocates gathering in Fort Lauderdale look to suspend animation, but can they suspend disbelief?

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / May 20, 2011

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As you doubtless know, tomorrow is the first day of the oft-rescheduled Christian Rapture, the end of the world as we know it. It is also the first day of Suspended Animation Inc.’s weekend conference on cryonics, the controversial pseudo-science of freezing the dead in the hopes of rejuvenating them at a hypothetical later date.

Penn Jillette, the speaking partner of the comedy-magic team Penn and Teller, ungraciously calls it “the science of turning humans into popsicles.’’

There are about 2,000 “cryonicists’’ in America — men and women prepared to pay as much as $250,000 to spend eternity in an upright, metal thermos chilled to an unbalmy minus 196 degrees Fahrenheit. So far, about 200 clients have opted for the deep freeze.

At various times, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Simon Cowell have yapped about cryo-preserving their remains. Suddenly cremation looks like a very attractive option.

When I first contacted Suspended Animation’s general manager, Catherine Baldwin, she sounded genuinely disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to attend her conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., tomorrow. About 650 words from now, I think she’ll be just as happy that I stayed in Boston.

To be fair, Baldwin was exceptionally helpful and candid during our telephone conversation. We discussed what she called “the grandest experiment in human history, a lot of aspects of which are still experimental. Cryonics will still be on the fringe,’’ she said, “until we bring somebody back.’’

No stranger to candor myself, I told her it would be impossible to write about SA and its collaborators, Alcor Life Extension Foundation and the Cryonics Institute, without mentioning the Ted Williams case, possibly the most ghoulish story ever to appear in the pages of the Globe. You may remember how The Kid’s icy remains fetched up at Alcor, in Arizona, against the wishes of some family members. A few years later, an Alcor defector retailed hellish stories about staffers whacking Williams’s frozen head for fun, as it were. “Ted’s case embodies the controversial side of what we do,’’ Baldwin said. “You had conflicts in the family, and disputes over money.’’

Not that such imbroglios are rare in her line of work. SA deploys medical personnel to the bedside of a dying person to temporarily freeze the corpse and fill it with a fancy version of antifreeze for transport to a storage facility like Alcor. “Field level assignments are a nightmare,’’ Baldwin told me. “The hospital doesn’t want you there, and the family doesn’t want you there, either.’’

At the end of our conversation, Baldwin offered to chat again, and to put me in touch with Saul Kent, the godfather of American cryonics who will be featured at this weekend’s freeze-a-thon. A day or two later, she messaged me that “Saul is not interested in participating in an interview and has asked me to focus my efforts on the conference right now instead of talking to you.’’

That’s understandable. Kent is an ambulatory public relations disaster. He arranged for his ailing mother, Dora, to die at Alcor in 1987, and had her head surgically removed and frozen. When the Riverside County (Calif.) coroner came sniffing around, Mrs. Kent’s head was temporarily stored in the home of a friend. Following further police inquiries, the head disappeared. On his television show, “First Person,’’ Errol Morris asked Kent: “By the way, where is your mother now?’’

“I’d rather not comment on that,’’ Kent replied. “There’s no statute of limitations on murder, and I’d rather not reveal where she is.’’ (There is an exhaustive account of the Dora Kent affair on the Alcor website, where the incident is recounted as an important legal victory for cryonics.)

On Morris’s show, Kent also observed: “One of my heroes has always been Dr. Frankenstein. I think he’s been misunderstood.’’

Right.

In theory, you can watch SA’s weekend conference streaming live on the company’s website, Suspendedinc.com.

Coda

I like this quote from Elmore Leonard, whose stock is riding high on the success of the FX network’s “Justified,’’ based on one of his stories: “I don’t worry about mortality. I’m 85 now, so one of these days my life will end and that will be it. I’m getting kind of tired anyway and my eyes have failed to the point it’s hard to read a book.’’

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.