Tag Archives: Immortality

Immortality: no longer fiction?

The great unknown associated with dying has resulted in a societal fascination – no, obsession – with death. Death is everywhere from our newsfeeds, to our music, to our literature and movies. Yet as frequently as death comes up in our lives, so does its opposing force: immortality.

From legends of the fountain of youth throughout history, to religions which qualify the afterlife as a form of “eternal life”, to fantasy shows like Game of Thrones, in which characters die and resurrect left and right, we are just as enamored by the concept of evading death as we are exploring it. Science fiction has toyed with the idea of immortality through technology since the beginning of the genre. However, in a time when we are maybe 20 years from roads exclusively populated by self-driving cars, some people have claimed that immortality through science may no longer be fiction.

One such individual is leading ‘futurologist’ Dr. Ian Pearson, who predicts that humans could outlive the restraints of physical bodies by the year 2050. This estimation refers to proposed virtual reality worlds where people could upload their consciousness before their bodies fail. Personally, I’m more fascinated with the idea that genetic engineering could slow or even reverse cellular ageing, making biological immortality a plausible concept.

For my non-sciencey counterparts out there, gene editing is the phenomenon in which scientists locate a problematic gene in an organism, use enzymes to snip it out, and replace it with the functional or desired copy of the gene. The most popular and groundbreaking system for gene editing at this time is CRISPR-Cas, which I’m sure lots of you have heard of. At this point, genetic engineering research revolves around diseases and disorders which could be greatly reduced or even eradicated with this technology. However, when most people hear ‘genetic engineering’, they think about ‘designer babies’ and dystopias like that portrayed in the 1997 film GATTACA (10/10 would recommend). Because of our society’s focus on the fantastic applications of this technology, it’s not surprising that there is talk of regenerative medicine as a means of achieving immortality.

The ethics of gene editing is a hotly debated topic, both for the discomfort it stirs up in the general public, as well as more imminent scientific concerns. A group of prominent scientists urged for a ban on all human genetic engineering in the U.S. in 2015. This general ban did not pass, but genetic engineering of humans is tightly regulated in the US. It is for this reason that I disagree with claims that immortality through genetic engineering could be achieved in our lifetime. Many people are rightfully hesitant to consider messing with nature by ridding the world of mitochondrial disease, for example, which we already have all the essential parts to do. While I think our society is capable of the technology required for this kind of science, I don’t think humans will be able to accept a life without death anytime soon.


Making the Most of Life

We often talk about what it means to “truly live” or even more simply what it means to be considered “living.” This idea was one of the main points of the Terri Schiavo case and this idea came back to me in the form of a conversation.

A few weeks back, I was talking to one of my best friends about a book she had recently read called When Breath Becomes Air. The book is an autobiography written by Paul Kalanithi. Kalanithi was an outstanding medical student at Stanford who was in the residency stage in his path to becoming a neurosurgeon and all was well in his life. Then one day, his life came crashing down as he was diagnosed with terminal Stage 4 lung cancer. My friend explained to me that Kalanithi wrote the book to not only tell his story but more importantly to discuss how to think of and approach life when diagnosed as terminally ill. Kalanithi talked about how he truly “lived”when he realized he was dying. Although I haven’t read the book (yet), I did a good amount of research and surfing behind Paul’s story to get a better idea of his vision of life.

As the news of the death of Stephen Hawking shook the world, I came across an article on the web, and a particular line caught my attention. “Those who live in the shadow of death often live the most” was the opening line of one of the paragraphs. Although the article was about Stephen Hawking and his life, I immediately thought back to the conversation with my friend about Paul Kalanithi. This is the idea that he so very well embodied in his memoir, and I would like to share a few thoughts on how he did so.

It is obviously a far stretch to claim Paul took his situation “in stride”, but the way he talked about how to approach death with grace makes the reader reconsider what it means to be fully alive. Paul often talked about his experiences in residency, and repeatedly brought up that he didn’t want to be a doctor to “help save lives” as the cliché goes. For Paul, the biggest goal was to help people understand death and illness. Helping save someone’s life wasn’t worth it to Paul if it meant that patient was now bound to a life that he would not find worth living (being severely handicapped, for example). This was a bigger failure to Paul than the patient dying. We often set an ultimatum for those that are ill. We think they must be saved at all costs because in our minds; death is the worst possible scenario.

Kalanithi claims life isn’t about avoiding suffering, because everyone will die. There is not point in worrying about death, because as long as you aren’t dead, you are still living. I will definitely have a much better idea about Paul’s message when I get around to reading the book soon, but the article that I came across reminded me of the conversation with my friend and even further, the Terri Schiavo case. There is of course no one right way to approach death. But Kalanithi’s message is certainly one that can potentially alleviate stress and make this adventure that we call life a little more pleasant.


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Cryonics and Death

     A few months ago, there was a story in the news that relates to an interesting aspect of death— cryonics. Cryonics is the science of using extremely cold temperatures to preserve a human body, with the hope that life can be restored in the future, when we have the technology/ knowledge to do so. The news article explored the case of a 14 year old girl who died of cancer, whose dying wish was to be cryogenically frozen (the court ended up ruling in her favor and if you’re interested, the articles can be accessed below).

     The concept of cryonics is one thing and the ethics of cryonics, another. Personally, I don’t think cryonics is, or ever will be, feasible— the vast majority of science deem it an impossible task, and I think we’re simply wasting resources, time and research that can be put to better use. However, if we did manage to revive the actual human body— the cadaver— reviving the human brain is an infinitely more complex and intricate task. But let’s go along with this idea. If both the human body and brain were revived, how can we ensure the health/ quality of life or that the revival would result in the same individual? Would personality or memories, the very essence of a person, be preserved? If so, to what quality or to what extent? It’s incredibly hard to believe that after cryopreservation, that the mind, body and brain would not be fundamentally changed. Again, let’s play along and suppose that all the logistics of cryonics were perfected and the same individual could be brought back to life. The bigger question then arises— is it ethical and should we do it?

     Successful cryonics would shatter our very notion of life and death. In my opinion, humans were not meant to be brought back to life; it’s against our very nature. Life is a natural of death and death is a natural part of life. I understand that many people are uncomfortable and afraid of death and what it entails, but on the flip side, what would an essentially immortal life mean for humanity? Imagine what life would be like, waking up hundreds of years later, in a completely unfamiliar place and time, with no family or friends. What quality of life would you have? Cryonics would affect virtually every aspect of society — the economy, environment, religion, education, population etc… The desire for immortality has intrigued humans for thousands of years, yet death is natural for humans and I think that cryonics, especially if you benefit financially (like cryonic companies do), is little cruel because you may very well be giving people false hope, in one of their most vulnerable states.

     On a last note, however, my stance is softened a little bit when I consider cases like this little girl, where she didn’t get a chance to live her life. It’s one thing, if you want to be immortal or have a longer life for selfish reasons, but another, to simply want a chance to experience the world, because at the end of the day, I do think that everyone should at least deserve a chance at life.

The news article links:




Frozen in Time

Kim Suozzi died in January of 2013, but she may have a second chance at life—in 100 years or so. According to a recent New York Times article, Suozzi, who died at age 23 of an aggressive form of cancer, chose to have her brain cryogenically frozen in the hopes of one day being revived (possibly with her memories and personality still intact).

Suozzi and long-term boyfriend Josh Schisler were about as realistic as possible regarding the idea of cryogenics: they hoped that Kim would eventually be able to come back to life in an artificial body, using a computer to feel and sense things. Despite the decidedly unappealing prospect of living without a body (immediately after her death, Kim’s head was detached from her body in order to expedite the freezing process), Suozzi and Schisler were enthusiastic and hopeful. Said Schisler, “I just think it’s worth trying to preserve Kim.”

As is the case in many situations involving death, Kim’s loved ones were at odds with each other. Her father, who ultimately was not given power of attorney, reportedly told Kim, “Dying is a part of life…we don’t life forever.” But Kim and Josh persevered, eventually securing the money for the procedure, mostly through anonymous donations.

Currently, Kim’s brain remains frozen

at a private facility in Arizona.

Aside from the science fiction-y overtones in the article, I think the story raises some very real questions about the role of medical technology in overcoming death. Is freezing the human brain really a triumph over death? By all accounts, Kim Suozzi most definitely died on that January day. But if the possibility of coming back to life—in whatever form that may be—is real, then can we really write her off as dead? And how close is science actually to being able to achieve what Kim and Josh had hoped? I was simultaneously disturbed and intrigued by this article; I found myself wondering if in the future death will even exist at all.


A Never Beating Heart: A Glimpse into Never Ending Life

Early in the spring of last year Craig Lewis, a 55-year-old Texas native, found himself confronted with a life-or-death situation. After battling with a complicated heart condition leading to the build up of abnormal proteins in his heart, Lewis was told by doctors that he had just 12 to 24 hours to live before his heart would give way entirely. Where all other heart-supporting technologies proved to be insufficient, Lewis’ only chance of survival lied in removing the heart completely—and putting machinery in its place.

The device, called a “continuous flow” pump, works by using blades to supply a continuous flow of blood to the entire body. As a result, the patient has no heartbeat, and as Lewis’ doctors state, “by all criteria that we conventionally use to analyze patients,” he would be considered dead. Although able to walk, read, and otherwise completely functional, Lewis’ EKG is flat-line, and a stethoscope would reveal no heartbeat. Although tested extensively in cows, Lewis was the first human subject. While the device worked flawlessly, Lewis ultimately died 5 weeks after it was installed as his condition led to the corrosion of his kidneys and liver. A short video highlighting Lewis’ experience can be found below:


While Lewis’ doctors claim the device is the “waive of the future” his story left me with more concern than excitement. Lewis’ story represents the natural degradation of the body that occurs with aging, and science’s extreme intrusion into that process. While Lewis’ body was ready to give up, Lewis was ready to fight back, and with technology on his side, he won the battle. With the invention of this new device will individuals always have the option of “choosing” to live? When our organs, one by one start to erode, will technology advance to the point to which we can just replace them with shiny metal versions? It’s already been proven that modern advances in technology have significantly improved human life spans. It seems as though heart-replacement technology seeks to made life endless.

Craig Lewis’ story can furthermore be seen as indicative of America’s overall view of death as not a natural and inescapable ending, but a fearsome process that must be stopped at all costs. Americans seems to think that death is an injustice, a force to battle against. While it’s true that the death of an infant or child seems premature, at what point must we admit that individuals are ready to die? Millions of our ancestors have come and gone. The idea that future generations can control their life spans, and enhance them to an unnatural extent, seems not only frightening, but quite frankly a little absurd. Death is inevitable, and I believe it is the time to embrace it—not run from it though technological advances.

Google Doodles—A Modern Medium to Immortalize the Dead?


Most of us are familiar with the iconic Google logo—that colorful logo that pops up against the white screen of our computers as we anxiously type away a question, phrase, or word we need to know more about. Every so often when we arrive to Google’s homepage we are greeted by a different logo of sorts, a doodle that commemorates a historic event or celebrates the life of a person. This past Monday I was pleased to find that Google had decided to make a doodle commemorating the life of Celia Cruz on what would have been her 88th birthday.  This is the doodle pictured above. Although this name may not be at all familiar to many of you, it’s a household name we Latinos know and respect. Celia Cruz is one of the greatest salsa singers of all time, the Queen of Salsa, and one of the largest icons Cuba has produced.

Following up on my group’s discussion from Wednesday, in which we discussed how people are immortalized in the modern world today, I thought back to this doodle I had seen earlier this week. Many famous people have had Google doodles made of them, such as Michael Jackson, Gandhi and Martin Luther King to name a few. Media was one of the mediums that we considered helps in this immortalization of people, particularly celebrities, icons and other people who are in the public eye. Considering how Google has become such a huge part of our culture and everyday lives, which can be proven by the fact that many people today even use it as a verb (i.e. I’m googling it, wait up.), I’d like to suggest that these doodles are a modern way people are immortalized. What do you think about this? Do you agree? What are ways people are immortalized  in modern society today?

Frozen But Not Forgotten

When Grandpa Bredo Morstol died in 1989, he began a journey far different from what many might consider a “normal” burial. Coming from a family captivated by the science of cryonics, the process of deep-freezing the bodies of those who have died with the hope that healing and resuscitation may be possible in the future, Grandpa Bredo’s children forwent a traditional funeral and instead packed their father’s body in dry ice. From there he was shipped across the pond from their home in Norway to a cryonics facility in California. Nearly four years later when the Morstol children decided they’d rather keep their father close to home, the whole family moved to a modest home in the small town of Nederland, Colorado – with Grandpa Bredo residing in an ice-packed shed in back. The Morstol family maintained the integrity of Grandpa Bredo’s body by hiring an “ice man,” a caretaker who refreshes the dry ice supply once a month to keep Grandpa safely frozen.

When the town of Nederland heard the news that a local family was keeping their Grandpa frozen in the backyard, intrigue led to family-operated tours, which in time escalated into a full-fledged winter celebration. Now officially known as “Frozen Dead Guy Days” this three-day festival has been referred to as Nederland’s own Mardi Gras. Nearing on its 14th year, this festival is based on death-themed activities, including but not limited to coffin races, parade of decorated hearses, frozen-turkey bowling, Grandpa-look-a-like costume contests, and more. This quirky festival is not just celebrated by the people from Nederland, but by those all over the world who fly in to enjoy the fun.

Underneath the clear oddities of this festival (i.e. frozen salmon tossing contest) lie deeper matters of interest. First are the implications of the family’s choice to freeze their father’s body. Although sources indicate that the family had a deep interest in cryonics, can this interest be interpreted as their way of dealing with grief? Instead of accepting that one day their father and eventually themselves will cease to exist, does a devotion to cryonics represent a refusal to accept the finality of death? Perhaps there is comfort in the idea that since the body is prepped to be revived, it is not truly gone.

A second oddity is the festival goers’ undeniable deviation from how many Americans “normally” respond to encountering a dead body. The dead are often associated with fear and sadness, and viewing the dead leaves us upset and troubled. In contrast, Grandpa’s dead body is not only a spectacle people long to view, but a spectacle that has inspired an entire festival of celebration and happiness. What is it about this dead body, specifically, that doesn’t ignite feeling of fear?

A final point of consideration that’s highlighted by this unconventional festival is the right of the dead. Grandpa Bredo’s body has now been preserved in dry ice for 25 years, and has been a public display for almost 20. While it has been advertised that his childrens’ motives for preserving the body were in line with their father’s reverence for cryonics, there is no way of truly knowing whether Grandpa would have liked his body to become a public spectacle. Would Grandpa be distraught with his body’s use as an entertainment and tourist attraction, or would he enjoy the attention? Since we’ll never truly know, Grandpa’s spot in the limelight will remain.



The Final Installment of the Twilight Saga

The final installment of the Twilight saga was released on November 16, 2012 in U.S. theatres. The film centers on Bella’s half- vampire half- human daughter, Renesmee Cullen, who is in danger of the Volturi for a false allegation. The Cullens gather support from other vampire clans to protect Renesmee to prevent a bloody vampire war. Breaking Dawn Part Two presents interesting elements of vampire lore that are undoubtedly connected with death: death as a sex symbol and a lesson on how to kill a vampire.

Sex sells in pop culture, and Breaking Dawn definitely made this point clear. From Tayler Lautner’s rock hard abs to close ups of Kristen Stewart’s full lips; from passionate love scenes to sex jokes, Twilight symbolizes the sexuality in death. That is to say, the characters themselves are symbols of sex. The highly attractive cast reminded me of other vampire movies, from Coppola’s Dracula (1992) to Dracula 2000 (2000) produced by Patrick Lussier to Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing (2004) which similarly casted sexy actors and actresses. Furthermore it reminded me of Dr. Stutz’ previous blog post from early November, “Can I please have a look at the coffin with the hot chick black reaper?” and Sarah Hampton’s recent post on Vladimir the Impaler: the media is “sexifies” objects of death, making death more pleasing, enticing, and approachable.

Breaking Dawn pt. 2 presents an interesting element regarding suicide: you die to become immortal. It is a sacrifice for rebirth. Bella exemplifies this resurrection most clearly when she is bit by Edward to become a vampire. As a result, she not only gains immeasurable strength and good health, but her daughter, Renesmee, is born a vampire-human hybrid. Renesmee is special, because she is not an Immortal Child, or a child that was bitten by a vampire. Instead, Renesmee is born biologically. Here, again we see how our generation humanizes vampires, changing the old traditional stories of bloodthirsty vampires to the possible existence of half human half vampire entities.

The film also comments on what we understand as the death of a vampire. Supposedly immortal beings, it is agreed that vampires can be killed by sunlight or a stake through the heart. The film disregards death by sunlight and also illustrates a new method. We have seen from the first episode of the Twilight Saga that vampires sparkle in sunlight instead of burning into ashes. Furthermore, decapitation becomes the method for survival in the film. Team Cullen, aided by their alliance with the wolves, takes on the Volturi in a gruesome battle where the heads literally snap and roll. I find this very interesting, because vampire films have illustrated how humans can kill vampires, but I have never seen vampires kill vampires.  Lastly the decapitations made me think of how the living suffer and the dead do not: mortals sometimes experience painful deaths whereas the vampires (technically dead), die instantly and definitely at the detachment of their head.

Julio Medina

Tuck Everlasting, part deux

What is it people want most at the end of their lives? Is it peace? Or more time? I just watched Disney’s Tuck Everlasting (2002), based on the children’s fantasy novel published in 1975 by Natalie Babbitt. The story focuses on Winifred Foster, a fifteen-year-old girl from a wealthy family and strict household. Winnie runs into the woods out of her life of frustration and boredom to discover the Tuck family, who drank from a magic spring and became immortal. Apart from exploring themes of immortality, life, and death, Tuck Everlasting presents dualism of fear. Simultaneously, the movie ceaselessly challenges and redefines the definition of a lived life. Finally we see how ritual is as natural as the life cycle itself.
Tuck Everlasting (2002) presents a dualism of fear: fear of death or fear of an unlived life. Commonly people might say that they are scared because they don’t know what is behind the black veil or of leaving the earth unaccomplished. Nevertheless, the film poses a scarier thought: the unlived life. At the words of Winnie, the film suggests that living fully involves doing everything you can and what you want at a slow pace.
Even so, the main point to take home is that living also involves dying; dying oneself and experiencing death of a loved one. For example, Miles Tuck lives in regret and bitterness, wishing he could have died with his family. His immortality obstructs his death, and he becomes a “rock stuck at the side of the stream”. It’s as if his life is one long sentence without a period, forever expanding but never finding closure. Death is natural and it must occur in order to have lived.
To further illustrate is the scene of Winnie’s grandmother’s funeral. Winnie watches her grandmother be buried and she sees her mother crying. Her realization is two-fold: Dying is natural and unlike Miles, she and her mother will eventually pass too. This must have been the realization that kept her from drinking the immortal water.
Although this is not emphasized, we see the importance of ritual in the funeral scene and in the scene where Mrs. Foster mourns. Not only is ritual a way for mourners to remove themselves from social order and expectations, but their removal from society is as natural as life. Humans are designed to feel emotion and express it, and death rituals serve this process. Thus, ritual becomes a symbol of cyclical life itself.
Although, Tuck Everlasting (2002) may be underlined by cheesy romanticism, cliché aphorisms, or hokey mottos, it is an honest film. Ultimately it reminds us that we don’t have to live forever, we just have to live. So get out there and seize the diem.

Julio Medina

Technologically Prolonging Life and Tuck Everlasting

Many of our recent readings have dealt with the advancement of medicine and technology and how it has affected the length of life.  In America, we see this triumph over death as a great accomplishment and therefore strive to keep increasing the length of life.  However, are we raising quality of life as well, or just delaying the inevitable processes of nature? As we age and become more feeble and sickly, technology that preserves our lives becomes more increasingly present.  It is used to keep our heart pumping when the heart has stopped doing so on its own, to keep us breathing, and to replace body parts that can no longer perform correctly.  These actions can prolong life, but they also commonly leave patients in a state of non-life, non-death; comas, forms of social death after living longer than family and peers, and failed organ transplants.  For these reasons we can wonder not only how beneficial these actions are, but also when should we plan to stop technology advancements.  After a point, extended life is no longer a beneficial thing if all other important aspects of life are absent.

Movie poster for Tuck Everlasting (2002)

Movie poster for Tuck Everlasting (2002)

This argument is presented in the book/movie Tuck Everlasting. The Tucks have lived for over a hundred years after drinking from a stream that gave them eternal life.  Winnie Foster falls in love with one of the Tuck sons and eventually learns their secret of immortality; he tries to convince her to drink from the stream and wait for him so that they can share the rest of time together.  The father, Angus Tuck has a conversation with Winnie in which he tries to convince her otherwise (see video link).  It is here that the concept of longevity versus quality of life is incorporated into this fantasy film.  Angus establishes the idea that living forever is not such a great gift; they become a being in a world in which everything around them passes by throughout time.  They no longer have an importance as an individual since they exist outside the boundaries of normal functioning life.  He believes that Winnie, as a mortal, is able to live a true life of meaning and social connections with the world she lives in.  Taking  Tuck’s advice, Winnie decides not to drink from the spring and we see that she dies after a long and fulfilling life; the film shows us that if given the choice, opting for a natural life is more meaningful and rewarding than “living forever”.  Maybe this should be considered as we continue along our path of forever advancing science and technology.

Winnie Foster at the immortal spring

Winnie Foster at the immortal spring

-Victoria Grumbles