Preserving Impermanence

August 10, 2020 / Cameron Kelly

Who will you be when you die? Will you be “you,” the one who lived your life? Or, will you be “it,” an artifact of time?


Memory is more than thoughts and images that travel us to past moments. It’s a vehicle that drives us from an old state of being to a new one. Memories of past societies reveal lessons and traumas that future societies should avoid. And the bleak and vibrant memories of adolescence direct choices into adulthood. Everything has a story and a former reflection.

But how is that life memorialized?

Other than in lasting mental depictions, memories are preserved in the objects of today. As time capsules, these objects carry memories of those in the past into the future, and will always withstand time. Though they relay the memories of those who once roamed, these objects cannot transcend their actual form. The U.S Constitution will always be paper, the Rosetta Stone will always be a rock, and the Shroud of Turin will always be fabric. The stories that are left behind are merely an interpretation by those in the future and nothing more.

Yet, past objects are not the only ones storified; we are too. In human preservation, the body is the object, and the story is dependent on the viewer. When the Egyptians mummified their bodies, they had no idea that in a later time new civilizations would view their work. Viewers often view the mummies solely on their physical nature, and fail to see the true personalities, emotions, and the voices of those preserved. While examining the corpses of men and women who lived thousands of years ago, it’s often overlooked that they lived lives much like our own. They felt anger, sadness, joy, and everything in between. They were people, not just flesh. However, the existence of a person is not finite. Centuries later, these internal traits and experiences, that once gave definition to people, dissolve into the age they once lived. Left only husks and bones, their personal stories dwindle to a superficial reflection of the society they once inhabited. Our lives today are cemented in the same way. We too will face impermanence after death, and our bodies will only recant the lives of the society in which we live, and not our personal story.

Through the ages, human preservation has developed a new purpose. No longer are people preserved for honor or sacrifices but rather, for health. Progressive technologies allow one to be preserved in a state of inanimation. Through cryonics, bodies are placed in temperatures so frigid that natural gasses begin to liquefy and biochemical processes are suspended. The ones who seek out this treatment see it as a last resort. After many failed attempts at regaining health, those who are burdened by illness desperately find ways to treat their quality of life. Sometimes, they even look to preserve their bodies in hopes that a future entity will restore their life when technology is more adept at treating their ailment. The process involves assisted euthanasia of patients and storing their bodies in compact chambers where their bodies are cryogenically frozen. Ironically, those who fear death are willing to meet it if it means living a better life.

Imagine that you have an illness that medical personnel cannot cure. Hoping that a cure is available sometime in the distant future, you make the decision to preserve yourself. By choice, you’re sedated and euthanized. Minutes later, you’re placed into a cryogenic freezer, where you’re permanently stored. Cryonics is not a lucrative business, so the company that stored you fiscally collapses, and your body is thawed and discarded, treated no more than a fleshy vessel, void of the life that hoped for revitalization. 

Let’s say this happens a century or two in the future. Now, the people of the day live life at a different pace. A novel sense of vitality courses through their veins: New music pulsates new rhythms, old fashions shed to new, more efficient apparel, and future technologies hunt for change and innovation. With all the changes that mark this future, your body is carried into this era with the marks of the past — how it was preserved paints a picture of primitive technologies and a way of life that defines a period in history. To these beings of today, this defrosted cadaver that once was home to you is nothing more than the property of a former period in time. Your body is excavated for answers. Your corpse exploited to piece together a puzzle of old civilization. Your skin displayed as a reflection of the society you once lived in. Though your body is here, YOU are gone. The experiences, memories, and values that formed YOU dissipated the moment YOU took your last breath. YOU are impermanent.

Like objects that came before us, our bodies can be used to tell stories of the past. Our bodies can be preserved like books, pictures, or recordings. We cannot, however. Our personal stories are permanently left in the era in which we lived. When our bodies are observed, it’s impossible for future people to understand our true selves. Our bodies are objects that are tokens of history — a way to study past life. We cannot be resurrected. ■

Story by
Cameron Kelly.

Juleanna Culilap.

Photographer Alissa Lazo-Kim.

Mia Wei.

Cameron Kelly & Basil Montemayor.

Daniela Del Toro & Kristen Guillen.

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