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Death by Design

An edited version appeared in Men's Style, Spring 2010

It’s fair to say that death, life’s last great mystery, freaks us out. Rationalisation has vetoed death as a rung on the stepladder to heaven, the Promised Land, nirvana, or the reassurance of plain old samsara. The twenty first century has arrived, and it’s science, not religion, that we’re turning to in our quest for immortality.

It can take nature millions of years to make a diamond, but LifeGem, an American company on the make in Australia, can do it in less than twelve months. Synthetic diamonds are nothing new, but LifeGem are taking the technology to the edge by specialising in making diamonds from human remains.

“We capture the carbon from the cremated remains,” Denise at LifeGem’s Australian office at Bunurong Memorial Park in Victoria tells me. “There are several stages the carbon goes through; it gets purified, then the core is assembled and cured. This is the beginning of the diamond, then the rough diamond is created, and then it’s cut and finished.”

Having your dearly departed faceted into a sparkling synthetic rock could cost as little as $3,000, or as much as $27,000, depending on what size, cut and colour you select. “We can make them in five different colours and four different cuts; translucent, yellow, blue, green or red, and round, princess, radiant, and the heart shape, which has just come in.”

Cherie Guest had her husband Dean made into a 0.6 sized red diamond after he died in a road accident in 2002. "I don't see the big deal. Honestly, critics might think it's morbid, but it's ashes,” she told The Age in 2005. “It's the same as having it sit on the mantelpiece, but just in a prettier way. Other people have pretty urns, and I've got this.”

So far, more than forty Australians have had their loved ones made into a diamond. “Sometimes clients don’t tell people what they’re doing, it’s a very personal memorial and of course everyone has different views on things. We class this as a one of a kind diamond. It can be a family heirloom,” says Denise. Priceless.

Other out there options yet to reach our shores include having your ashes mixed with concrete and sunk to the ocean floor by Eternal Reef, where a brass plaque bearing your name will surprise deep-sea divers forever more. The patented Reef Balls are a conservationist’s wet dream; they add much needed new habitat to the marine environment by rehabilitating and rebuilding dying reefs. So far more than 400,000 Reef Balls have been sunk.

Why not let the Summum Organisation in Salt Lake City embalm you like a mummy, Egyptian style. It’s a US$67,000+, 120 day process of elaborate, intricate, detailed rites, a synthesis of medical technology, modern chemistry, and esoteric art that the organisation’s website promises will speak out to generations to come.

They’ll bathe and prepare you for immersion in fluid before covering you in lanolin and wrapping you in gauze. Next are multiple layers of sealing membrane that dry into an impermeable protective cocoon. You’ll then be wrapped in fiberglass, placed into your bronze Mummiform and hermetically sealed into a climate-controlled triple-reinforced protective vault.

Or, to really go out with a bang, the Celestis Foundation will shoot a symbolic portion of your cremated remains (cremains) into orbit. You’ll circle the earth for about fifty years before re-entering the atmosphere “blazing like a shooting star in final tribute.” Acid guru Timothy Leary took his final trip with Celestis in 1997, blasting into deep space in an American Pegasus rocket along with 23 others, including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

It’s all pretty extreme. But actually, so is what happens to the average dead Joe. Since the fifties, when chemicals were introduced en masse to agriculture and industry, it’s been standard practice to drain the body’s organ and arterial systems of their natural fluids and replace them with chemical preservatives – mostly the potent, carcinogenic formaldehyde. Any visible skin is heavily made up. The body is dressed and placed in a decay resistant coffin reinforced with agents such as fibreglass, steel and plastic.

Cremation is more common than burial these days (approximately 75% cremation versus 30% burial) but either way, the environment suffers. Figures aren’t available for Australia, but the EU estimates that 12 per cent of the UK’s combustion related atmospheric dioxins - linked to skin lesions and altered liver function, to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, endocrine and reproductive functions, and to several types of cancer - come from crematoria.

When bodies buried in this state do eventually begin to break down the chemicals, volatile compounds known to contribute to smog, ozone depletion and global warming, begin leaching into the soil and surrounding waterways.
Our obsession with clinging to the life raft for as long as possible is being pushed further and further from the shores of reality. Since the mid sixties American scientists have been developing the cryonics industry, the low-temperature preservation of the deceased until an as yet undetermined point in the future when resurrection, termed ‘reanimation’, is possible.

Philip Rhoades of New South Wales is going to construct Australia’s first cryonics facility near Cowra. He’s bought the land and has Health Department planning permission; it’s only a matter of time.

“I grew up with an interest in science and science fiction. Putting people into suspended animation is a common theme, and I always thought it would be available by the time I grew up. But when I hit my fifties and started getting aches and pains, I started looking into cryonics and was surprised to find that it hadn’t made a lot of progress in the States, and there was nothing resembling what’s happening there in Australia.”

More than two hundred people have been frozen in the US since the first suspension in 1967, including six Australians. Scientists haven’t managed to freeze and reanimate any mammals yet (the closest they have come is a water bear, a microscopic multicellular organism), but Rhoades is confident it’s only a matter of time.

“It’s not a religion. There are no guarantees, but assuming that things go more or less to plan, it’s not just likely, it’s inevitable,” he says, referencing achievements once thought miraculous – heart transplants, air travel, Moon landings, the mapping of the human genome – as evidence of our ability to make the impossible possible.

Three scientific principles underlie cryonic thinking. The first is that life can be stopped and restarted if its basic cell structure and chemistry is preserved. The second; that vitrification (not freezing) will enable people to be cooled to very low temperatures with little or no ice formation, thus sidestepping ice damage. And the third? It’s a clincher. Thanks to the emerging science of nanotechnology, devices capable of extensive tissue repair and regeneration are on the cards. Cryonicists forecast that these will enable the recovery of basic brain structures, including memory and personality.

“It’s going to be a family facility to begin with,” says Rhoades, who has managed to convince everyone in his family (except for his born again Christian sister-in-law) to come along for the ride.

“Not all cryonicists are non-believers, but there are probably a higher percentage of atheists and agnostics and non believers than amongst the general population. If you are a believer, then ‘Eternity’ is a very long time. If God put you on Earth, he shouldn’t have a problem with how long you live or whether or not you’re revived again in the future. Cryonicists don’t worry too much about what happens to the soul in the intervening period,” reckons Rhoades.

If you find the cost of international air travel exorbitant, don’t even think about buying yourself a ticket to the future. Rhoades estimates it will cost around $50,000. “I think once it’s up and running, people will want to start getting involved. Cryonics isn’t a money making thing. Both the US facilities are non-profit, member funded organisations. People think it’s for rich people, but most of the people signed up over there are ordinary people.”

Several life insurance companies in the US have jumped aboard with cryonics clauses in their insurance policies, making it affordable for all by spreading the cost over many years. In your twenties? Got some spare pie and mash? Christ man, don’t waste it on this life, start thinking about the next.

Step aside Father. The outlay funds a crew of scientists (‘the Standby Team’) who will be at your deathbed, literally ready and waiting to begin the suspension procedure. Speed is key; cryonicists reason that whilst the criterion for death is the cessation of heartbeat, all the cells of the body, including those in the brain, are still alive when death is pronounced. The hours it takes for all cells to die give the Standby Team a vital window of opportunity to de-animate a body in as lifelike a state as possible.

Plans for reanimation go hand in hand with rejuvenation. “A restoration to youth has to be part of the cryogenic thinking,” says Rhoades. “There’s no point dying a decrepit old man, being frozen and then revived and still being a decrepit old man. But if you looked and felt 25, well I can’t see a problem with that.”

Estimates of when rejuvenation might be possible vary wildly. “Science and biology and computers are moving so fast, it’s hard to predict beyond the next few years. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was available in the next twenty years or so. But every cryonicist has a different answer – some think it’s more like a hundred years.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the latest quill in the green movement’s increasingly feathered cap, the eco or natural burial movement.  Bodily decomposition and decay is facilitated by not preserving bodies, and burying them in a simple, biodegradable cardboard coffin or shroud.

Australia’s first natural burial site, Bushland Burials, was established at Millingtons Cemetery in Tasmania in 2003, and met with considerable interest and support. The movement has sprung from the UK, where there are two hundred plus eco sites. There are now three sites around Australia; the Tasmanian plot, Royal Oak in Victoria, and at Lismore in New South Wales. Another two are being considered in Western and South Australia.

There are no vaults, no embalming or preserving, no durable coffins and linings permitted. No memorials or structures. No herbicides. No plastic flowers. No skateboards. Just a body, treated in an ecologically friendly way, cased in a coffin made of plain or untreated pine, chipboard or heavy duty cardboard, and native plants from an approved list planted on the site.

“Bushland burials are becoming more popular as awareness of our carbon footprint increases,” explains Millingtons Manager Scott Cranfield. “Often a natural burial is one that has been planned in advance, by someone who has embraced the inevitability of their own death and wants to do it their way. It’s all about enabling people to be at one with the natural environment.”

It’s not just a simple, non-invasive, and environmentally sustainable option, it’s cheap. A traditional funeral averages $10,000, while an eco-funeral can cost as little as $2000.

But back to the future. I asked Rhoades what kind of world he hoped to wake up to. “I’m expecting things will be better than they are today. We’re doing some pretty stupid things with regards to damage to the environment and nasty wars and lots of people around the world aren’t doing that well…I’m hoping people will be living long and healthy lives well into their hundreds. Hopefully we’ll be exploring the rest of the solar system and heading off to the stars.”

Is he concerned about being reanimated only to discover he is a zombie slave to a master race of robots? “No. Not really. Why would they bother? If they have the technology to do that sort of thing, then they could make biological creatures and turn them into slaves anyway...why would they bother reviving us to do that?”