Death is the most indomitable phenomenon of a human life. It is considered as something most mysterious and cannot be avoided at all circumstances except for those who according to the myths and folklores attained immortality by the blessings of God. Different people have differing views on what constitutes death. In-fact people accepted the meaning and definition of death of what has been construed and accepted by various religious doctrines and faiths. Definition of death is only a recent phenomenon when man began to conquer the diseases with the medical and scientific advancement, and soon adapting itself to conquer the death too. Looking at these scientific discoveries, the Governments of various nations are also formulating their own concept and definition of what constitutes death to frame the national and social policies. Science has formulated the system of cryonics to bring back legally declared dead to life but it could be proved fruitful only during the time when there is even slight movement in the brain cells. But this process and the technological advancement and validity of the same is still going on.
This concept of death is quite contradictory to what is natural and religion. The following essay will pertain to what is death in today’s context in medical terminology and how it is contradictory to natural phenomenon of death.
Death is the most accepted reality universally, but the advent of the scientific reality and medicinal approach propounded that man can live ever after. With the scientific advancements in the form of cryopreservation, it has been conceptualized that there is no need of death, which deeply contradicts the natural phenomenon we are facing. The eagerness for immortality has been lingering within the man’s consciousness since centuries and he has been in quest for this immortality either through religious or scientific course. The man’s quest for immortality goes back to the age of era beyond 8 BC and is ardently reflected in religious epic Gilgamesh.
During 98-55 BC, an Epicurean philosopher conceptualized the fact that immortality cannot be gained rather subscribed to what is known as an atomic theory of matter. Based on this hypothesis, he speculated that human being might be restructured again by assembling the atomic structure, (Perry 2000: 30) which was against the doctrines of bible and several other religions all over the world. According to Bible, death is a reality and a part of the current human state afflicted by sin (Genesis 2:17; Romans 5; Hebrews 9:27). It is said that there is “a time to be born, and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2). But believers of bible also ardently believe that eternal life can be attained if they seek salvation through Jesus.
In 1829 -1903, Nikolai Fedorov who was a schoolteacher and a librarian in Moscow indicated on the possibility of bringing dead people back to life with the help of science. This he maintained could be attained without any divine intervention but depended on the will of God (Perry 2000: 32-33).
If we move by Darwin theory, immortality is understood as an extension of the will of self-preservation that should be shared with the humans and other animals. It can be understood with the help of the chemical reactions. For e.g. if we are facing a dangerous situation, our body responds to chemical reaction and we try to escape ourselves from the vagaries of danger. It can be proved beyond doubt from these chemical reactions that there could be a hope for a longer life and attainment of immortality. In fact in seventeenth century, English scientist Robert Boyle revived a small fish and frog when they were kept in a subfreezing temperature (Perry 2000: 37). Again in 1965, Isamu Suda at Kobe University in Japan conducted one more experiment that changed the whole concept in the way we perceive death. He removed a brain of cat from its body, perfused it with glycerol and kept it for freezing for complete six months. When the brain was restored to normal body temperature, it was very surprising to see that there was a movement in its body in the form of electric activity (Perry 2000: 39).
In 1950, Hermen Fiefel altered the old conventions of death to make us feel and realize it from new stance. For this study of death, he gave the name Thanatology. His study opened the new chapters into the whole arena of the concept death and opened the new doors for many new researches like Robert Fulton, Geoffrey Gorer, Richard Kalish, Robert Kastenbaum, Elizabeth Kubler- Ross and Edwin Shneidman to make this legitimate area for scientific discoveries. (Aiken 2000: ix) In 1967, Dr Christiaan Barnard in South Africa performed the first ever heart transplant, and the same year Thomas Starzl in Colorado too successfully transplanted the liver. (Colby 2006: 75) From then on, several doctors brought out several studies on the organ transplants and still the question remains, at what point they could remove organs from patient, and what is the criteria of that they should consider as death. As a response to this question, Dr Henry Beecher and the Harvard Medical School suggested to form a committee. The committee published their conclusion in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled “Report of the Adhoc Committee of the Harvard Medical School to Examine the Definition of Brain Death.” (Kuhse & Singer 2006: 339) They gave the definition of irreversible comma on the basis that any organ, brain or any other part of the body, which is no longer functioning and has no possibility also to function again is presumed to be dead. A patient is in the state of coma and can be easily diagnosed for the same if it is found that there is an absence of blood in the circulation in the retinal vessels or the absence of cardiac activity. Further according to the report if the patient is unreceptive and unresponsive. In other words, there is no response to stimuli. Secondly when doctors find there is no movement or breathing and no response to stimuli such as pain, touch, sound or light. Thirdly when there is an absence of according to medical terms elicitable reflexes. Besides, there is no ocular movement and blinking and no evidence of postural activity. There is no swallowing, yawning or vocalization and along with it, corneal and pharyngeal reflexes are also absent. When there is no chance for a patient to recover according to the above conditions and according to the prescribed specifications of ECG, then the patient can be declared as dead and all the nurses, and family or relatives of the patient be informed and then the organs could be removed. (Kuhse & Singer 2006: 340)
But this definition of death is not final in the medical history, as there are advancements in the medical world so are the changes in the definition of death. President Commission presented its precise definition in the month of July 1981 but it was not a philosophical document but a public policy. It was 84-page report on Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA). It had statements of 56 medical consultants that distilled accepted medical practice in the United States for determining the occurrence of death. (Capron 1988: 148) It became the most important document prescribing guidelines of what constitutes death in the medical terms. The President Commission set up two standards for the definition; the statute would not only embody scientific mistakes but also allow for good medical practices. They declared that brain-based standard is best for declaring death. Even British investigations led the Conference of Royal Colleges and Faculties declared that death has been established “when all functions of the brain have permanently and irreversibly ceased” (Capron 1988:155).
Traditionally the death was assumed to be clinically declared when the heartbeat would stop beating, eyes would not respond to light and other sense organs would also not respond to touch and pain and bluing to the extremities especially of mouth and lips. The person was also presumed to be dead when the person had purplish red discoloration of the skin, stiffening of the muscles, and a gradual decline in body temperature to that of the external environment. The methods used to determine the death was also primitive like putting a feather or a leaf in front of the nose to determine whether patient was breathing or not and if there was no movement in the feather, the patient was presumed to be dead. It was the most imperfect way to determine the death of the person and often he would lie buried prematurely. These premature burials would often occur during wartime or epidemics when there was a danger of the spread of the epidemic. As a consequence, number of stories of 19th century was the replica of the potential danger of being buried alive and the best example of the literary strip is the Edgar Ellen Poe’s Premature Burial.
For psychologists and a laymen, death means disconnection between mind and body when the heart would stop beating and but that does not mean that death has occurred because his mind in the subtle consciousness is still in his body. The person is only considered as dead when this subtle consciousness leaves the body to take on the next life journey.
One or two North American physicians Byrne and Nilges were opposed to the very basic concept of brain death from the day it was formulated. In their review article, they posited the view that the requirement of the Uniform Determination of Death Act that “all functions of the entire brain should have ceased before brain death can be declared” (Lock 2000: 249) could not be possible during the clinic practice therefore there is lot of confusion between the process dying and death. They said that death going to be arrived should not be made sufficient criteria for the organ donation. They posited the view that the process involved in the rapid acquisition of physiologically sound organs may pose danger for the donor. (Lock 2000: 249) On this basis, they reflected on the claim that they are forced to come up with the haunting question of whether the clinically declared brain dead really did not have any function left. For this question, they argued that there should be reversal of our usual orientation and that there is a need to search not for the signs of a brain death but for the signs of a brain life. In many cases, it was observed that several patients have not either moved ahead towards total brain death during the several brain trauma nor could recover but remained constant in a vegetative state of mind since many years and would likely want to die rather than remain in that situation. In Japan, people are fearful of the fact that patients are turned into the organ donors even much before they are dead and what is nationally known as the brain death problem (noshi no mondai) (Lock 2000: 250).
A Japanese pediatrician, Tomoko Abe who had been employed since last many years in a hospital had committed himself in a deep study during the past decade in Japan against imposing legalization of brain death. She posited the view that the concept of the brain death was accepted for facilitating the organ transplant. She said that the point is if the patient is conscious or not but one should believe intuitively this fact that patient is dead. If the patient’s color is good, warm, bleeds if cut, and urinates and defecates, will not be considered as dead. It is quite true that person may have cardiac arrest later but the most important is to observe that if the body has turned from warm into cold or not. If this happened then only Japanese would accept the person as dead. Abe strongly opposed to the concept of organ donation from the donors who were declared brain dead. After the three decades of the confusion about the concept, Japanese government passed the law on 17th June 1997 declaring that if the patient declared brain dead leaves the written consent as a donor and the family and relatives do not object to the same then organs could be retrieved from the donor (Lock 2000: 250-251).
Often cases were heard when the patient clinically declared dead came back to life before they were cremated. For us it is nothing more then a miracle or a myth but science has turned this myth into a reality when it has made it possible for the resurrection of a physical body. This whole scientific process is known as cryonics. In this process, a body is deep-frozen in liquid nitrogen just shortly after death and is kept in an aluminum capsule. It is a belief that a body if kept in such a condition could be resurrected to life. (Aiken 2000: 9) The word Cryonics has been adopted from the Greek word kryos meaning icy cold (Yang & Mochizuki 2003: 309).
The concept Cryonics started in 1967 with James Bedford, who was a 73-year-old retired psychology professor in Glendale at California. He died due to the renal cancer and became the first person to be tested with the process Cryonics. He was kept frozen under the controlled temperature for resurrection of the body. He made the beginning to this whole new practice, which was not imagined even few years back. He was kept under the frozen condition by the Cryonics Society of California and was eventually transferred to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s facility in Scottsdale, Arizona where his cryopreservation is still in the continuous process. (Wilcox 2000: 14) Currently there are several companies who are offering these services with more than 100 dead people are kept under preservation with the hope of their recovery and more than thousand people have given their sanction to keep themselves preserved when they would be declared legally dead.
The fundamental concept of cryonics lies in the concept that there are certain cellular structures in the human body where the memory, personality and identity of the person are stored and chemistry is stored in the brain. Under this process, the studies pin point the fact that there is high volume of cryoprotectant in the brain cells that circulates in the brain before cooling can stop any damage from ice, helping in the process of preserving fine cell structures inside the brain which is a storage place for memory and identity. (Plat 1995: Online)
Cryopreservation during the long run process needs the cooling to take place to near -196 degree C or – 321 degree F, which is a boiling point of the liquid nitrogen. It is a common held belief that cells would burst if the ice is formed within the cell, but this occurs only when the freezing point rises more than the “osmotic loss of water due to the extracellular space.” (Mazur 1984: 125). But it is also a fact that the damage occurring due to the freezing can get very serious, leading to the mechanical and chemical damages. Hereby cryoprotectants are used to minimize the damage. These are made to circulate in the blood vessels for removing and replacing water inside the cells with chemicals to prevent freezing. This enables us to decrease the damage but the freezing of people still leads to injury, which is not reversible with the technology present now (Plat 1995: Online).
If the cryoprotectants are used in high number, it would virtually stop ice formation and this process whereby the cooling and solidification is done without freezing is called vitrification. This process was first originated by the crybiologists Gregory Fahy and Brian Wowk during the late 1990 with the purpose to bank the transplantable organs. (Fahy G.M. et al. 2004: 157) Alcor Life Extension Foundation made the use of this to perform vitrification of the human body especially of brain. They performed this process on the animal brains also by examining ice damage and electron microscopy. In the process there was no ice crystal damage. There is a difference between the usages of the vitrification in cryonics with the vitrification adopted by the staff cryobiologist (Lemler, Harris, Platt & Huffman 2004: 560).
In cryopreservation, there is also a process known as the neuropreservation of the brain, with the surgically removal of the rest of the body. In this process only the brain is cryopreserved. This process is initiated with the aim that the brain is a main area of memory and personal identification. It is also motivated by the belief that the reversal process of any kind of cryonic preservation is so complex that technology developed in the future should be capable of tissue regeneration which involves the growth of a new body around a repaired brain. Some also came up with their suggestion that if the whole body of the patient is revived, it would involve removal of the original body and building a new body because the process of preservation could damage tissues. Keeping these considerations in mind and the low cost involved including the easier transportation and above all focus on the preservation of the brain induced many cryonicists to choose this process (Schweid, 2006: 45).
As was expected, no human being has yet been reanimated. To be able to do so would require the repairing of the cause what made the person killed, turning the effect of aging and repairing damage of tissues that could occur during the process of cryopreservation. Any person who has given his sanction for the cryonic process did so with the hope that further developments would be able to fulfill their dreams of attaining of the immortal life. In 1994, Charles Platt, Vice President of the cryonics company Cryocare, gave his comment on this process in his 1986 book by Eric Drexler. “Drexler proposed the concept of nanotechnology-machines on the molecular scale, theoretically capable of repairing individual cells. At last, cryonics advocates were able to describe exactly how they hoped future science could undo the freezing damage that still tended to occur even when cryoprotectants were used” (Platt 1994: Nanotechnology).
So far it is bright hope that with the advancement in the technology, people could be at least reanimated from cryopreservation, and there is a whole possibility that man could become indefinitely in a youthful state of affairs.
Several concepts emerged on what is cryonics, if it is a method of burial or a medicine? If we consider that cryonics is interment then is no doubt about the fact that there is a life after death and then the whole concept of resuscitation falls to ground, because there is a soul and it would be gone, and according to many religious tenets, only God can bring soul into the body of human being. But the main function of the whole process of Cryonics is bringing back dead to life therefore by this assumption, Cryonics is false. On the other hand, if we say that cryonics is medicine with legally declared death as merely a phenomenon then cryonics is a long-term coma with uncertainty. It becomes mere continuation of caring of sick people when others have declared persons already dead. Many religious and Christian orthodox have advocated their opinion in the favor of Cryonics. There is a mention of this system even in the sermons of Lutheran Reverend Kay Glaesner (Alcor Life Extension Foundation: Online).
Until 1980 the probability of cryonics was considered as very dim, as people were not aware of the fact that which technology would be most appropriate for the technology to get back the dead and there was a hope that new technologies would continue to develop and the frozen people could come back alive. Many organizations, which started this process gradually, stopped this work and number of dead bodies under their care were either buried or decayed. Once the nanotechnology became evident, the hope again aroused for the cryonics to get success and the hope is arousing that any one who is dead before the advent of the nanotechnology will be losing the healthy life that he could sustain for centuries. The cryonics organizations are constantly in the process of developing their techniques.
The basic fact is that death is inevitable for all though there are several concepts and meaning of the death. In layman terms, death is something to be afraid of something unknown and mysterious and on the top of this, death is without pain. But Yogic philosophy states that through self-realization, a person can gain victory over death. This is the main concept of death, which is being propounded and exercised by people since many generations, but it is this only victory that no human being had been able to achieve but future holds the hope for us.
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