Sense and Nonsense: The Long Tomorrow

The responsorial refrain for the Friday of the 15th Ordinary Week reads, “You saved my life, O Lord; I shall not die” (Isaiah 38:10-17). Taken literally, this is nonsense. We shall die. What is peculiar to Christianity is, indeed, the resurrection of the body, but this doctrine does not mean that we shall not die. There needs to be something that connects what is to be resurrected with what has truly died. This something is the immortal soul. In that sense, the “I shall not die” is true.

The death in July of Ted Williams, the famous Boston Red Sox slugger, brings this topic to mind. Some confusion arose among Williams’s children about what to do with their father’s body—cremate it or commit it to a cryonics institute, where it would be deep-frozen until a better day.

Currently, two places in the United States (Arizona and Michigan) preserve frozen bodies. The Institute in Michigan’s Web site indicates that it can freeze a body for $28,000. The July 7 edition of the Boston Globe reported a higher price tag: “Freezing a body costs more than $100,000 in electricity, labor, liquid nitrogen, and other equipment. Charges for storing a head are $50,000.” When science figures out this death problem, the head can be attached to a new body. It is not quite clear where the new headless body will come from.

A theory is behind this practice of freezing the dead: “When and if future medical technology allows, our member patients will be healed and revived, and awaken to extended life in youthful good health.” Quickly after “legal death”—”but please, don’t wait too long”—the bodies or heads are suspended in liquid at minus 320° F. In that awkward position, they await science to catch up with them.

One does not know whether to laugh or cry at the Williams case. Apparently, Williams sent out contradictory instructions to his different children. Clearly, he did not ask for a “Christian burial.” Nothing seems wrong in principle with freezing a body instead of burying or cremating it. Bodies have been found in good shape in polar ice packs thousands of years after death, though thus far, none of them have leaped up and jumped around seeking new pals after they were thawed out.

For several centuries, the Church had a problem with cremation, since it was supposed to signify a denial of resurrection. Few today associate cremation with any particular eschatological position, and in many places, it is the more common method of dealing with human remains, even among Christians. According to one version of the Williams saga, the Splendid Splinter wanted his ashes to be scattered over deep ocean water.

Why do I bother with this account of Ted Williams and his possible cryonic suspension? In one sense, it is an odd testimony to the desire all men have not just for immortality but resurrection of the particular self. In the July 17 Washington Post, Thomas Heath wrote, “Cryonics advocates say science might one day be able to thaw a body, cure whatever killed the person and restore life.” He added, “Most experts say that’s highly unlikely.”

Most “experts,” no doubt, say the same of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The last sentences of the Cryonics Institute’s Web site read, “Remember. You need us, and we need you. Help us to share and build the long tomorrow.” The resurrected status of Ted Williams will have more to do with how he lived than whether he is cremated, buried, eaten, or “cryonicized.” But the hope of resurrection persists among our kind, however bizarre the forms in which that hope is sometimes manifest. “You saved my life, O Lord; I shall not die.”

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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