Earlier this month, about 15,000 people gathered together in Nederland, Colorado, for a weekend of live music, swimming, volleyball, obstacle course races, contests, a parade, and even a gala. But what were they celebrating?
A frozen dead guy.
Bredo Morstoel, or “Grandpa Bredo” as he is lovingly called in Nederland, died of a heart condition on Nov. 6, 1989, in Norway. Soon thereafter, his grandson, Trygve Bauge, brought Grandpa Bredo’s body from Norway to the United States. Trygve and his mother, Aud Morstoel (Grandpa Bredo’s daughter), were—and, by all accounts, still are—devout believers in cryonics. According to Trygve and Aud, although Grandpa Bredo died of a heart attack 25 years ago, “cryonic suspension” (staying frozen) will allow him to later be revived once a cure for his heart condition is developed.
Upon his arrival in the U.S., Trygve stored Grandpa Bredo’s body in liquid nitrogen at a California cryonics facility until 1993, when he moved Grandpa Bredo to his home in Nederland, Colorado. Grandpa Bredo’s body stayed in cryonic suspension in a small shed behind Trygve’s home. Meanwhile, Trygve was deported from the U.S. due to visa complications, while Aud remained in the home without electricity or plumbing—violations of local ordinances which eventually led to her eviction. What was going to happen to Grandpa Bredo’s body? Aud feared that the body would soon thaw out. But the town of Nederland had a different concern: what had been happening?
Well, nothing illegal had been happening. But, in response to this chilling discovery, the city of Nederland added to its Municipal Code §7-34(16), declaring that the “keeping of bodies”—specifically, any place “at which the owner or occupant keeps, stores or permits to be kept or stored the whole or any part of the person, body or carcass of a human being . . . which is not alive upon any property”—constitutes a public nuisance affecting public peace and safety. Accordingly, Grandpa Bredo’s shed was in violation of the law. But as publicity heated up, the city cooled down: they made an exception for Grandpa Bredo under—you guessed it—a grandfather clause.
Now, thanks to the community of Nederland, and to is own family, Grandpa Bredo continues to rest in pieces of dry ice to this day. His -60°F cryonic state is maintained by caretakers and volunteers who deliver 1,600 - 1,800 pounds of dry ice to the shed every month.
Indeed, Grandpa Bredo is the frozen dead guy, the honoree of Colorado’s “most frigidly fun festival,” the Frozen Dead Guy Days. This annual celebration, which started in 2002, includes coffin races, a “polar plunge” into the icy Colorado River, a snow sculpture contest, a frozen T-shirt contest, brain freeze contests, snow volleyball, bowling with frozen turkeys, and a parade of hearses. He is the star of documentaries Grandpa's in the Tuff Shed and Grandpa's Still in the Tuff Shed. He is a beacon of hope for his family, who, in their unwavering faith in cryonics, support the Frozen Dead Guy Days festival “until a time in the future when medical advances will allow his body to be warmed and ‘reanimated.’” He is a symbol of unanswered questions about the legal rights of, and regarding, the deceased.
Should the cryonic “keeping of bodies” be outlawed? Who has custody of the remains? Does anyone owe an obligation to maintain the cryonic suspension of another? Do Trygve and Aud have any rights in this story? How can I be sure that I’m frozen when I die? How can I be sure that I’m not? Most people do not believe that Grandpa Bredo can ever be revived, but some people do—do we owe anything to what some consider the “temporarily” dead? Is it ethically “right” to keep Grandpa Bredo frozen? Would it be right to let him thaw? If cryonics is legitimate, what legal rights do the revived have? What would the legal status of the frozen be? If cryonics is not legitimate, should we protect the public by banning the sale of the service? Should we prohibit the practice entirely?
Regardless of one’s own belief in, or suspicion of, cryonics, more than 200 people are currently in cryonic suspension throughout the U.S., and an estimated 2,000 people have already made pre-need arrangements for cryonics upon their deaths. Thus, the legal and ethical issues surrounding cryonics do, and will continue to, matter. Indeed, though many questions of science remain, we cannot afford to put the legal issues on ice while we wait for the answers.
If you’re hoping to chill with Grandpa Bredo, next year’s Frozen Dead Guy Days is scheduled for March 6-11, 2015.
Catherine M. Hammack