Vignette 1: Frozen Dead Guy Days
“Are you here for the frozen dead guy?”
A question like that takes you back, especially when you are not there for the frozen dead guy. You’ve never heard of the frozen dead guy. You came into the small-town Colorado diner for a little breakfast before another day of skiing. And now the waiter is asking if you are here for the frozen dead guy. Is that on the menu?
The frozen dead guy, you learn, is Grandpa Bedo Morstoel, who died in Norway in 1989. After his death, his grandson packed his body in dry ice and shipped him to the Trans Time center in Oakland, California, where, through a process known as cryonics, the body was preserved in liquid nitrogen. In 1993 Grandpa Bedo was moved to Nederland, Colorado, where he is kept constantly on ice in a Tuff Shed in his granddaughter’s backyard. Keeping Grandpa Bedo cryonically preserved takes not only dedication but 1,600 pounds of dry ice every month and a lot of cold cash to pay for it. Accordingly, an annual Frozen Dead Guy Days festival was got up to raise funds for Grandpa Bedo’s icing. It has become the major event of the town: three days of partying, usually in early March, complete with casket races, live music, a parade, and a polar plunge. But Grandpa Bedo will not be kept forever on ice. Someday, when science has finally figured out how to revive the dead, Grandpa Bedo’s indefinitely great grandchildren will thaw the old man out so he can finally live again.
Vignette 2: The So-Called Death of Edith Peshak
“She is not dead—there is no death!”
A statement like that also takes you back. It surely took aback San Juan County, Utah, Attorney Donald T. Adams in 1935 when he was sent out to the Home of Truth settlement in Dry Valley, Utah, to investigate claims that they were harboring a dead corpse and refused to bury it/her. He had been contacted by the Utah attorney general who had been contacted by the daughter of the corpse in question requesting investigation into the matter. So he went out to Dry Valley and met with the community’s leader, Marie Ogden. “She told me the woman wasn’t dead,” he later recalled. “She said there is a cord that connects the hereafter and the present life and this cord had never been severed. She [the “deceased,” Edith Peshak] had the option to stay in this life or to sever the cord and go back, but she [Ogden] kept the nurses there taking care of this woman all the time.”
Marie Ogden had arrived in southern Utah in 1933, having migrated there from Newark, New Jersey, with a small group of followers. The nurses Adams mentioned were two of Marie Ogden’s followers: Home of Truth members Mary Cameron and Aletheia Chamberlain. Cameron was one of Ogden’s original followers who migrated out to southern Utah’s desert country from the eastern United States, in 1933. She was a registered nurse and a graduate of Boston City Hospital; she served on the editorial staff of The American Journal of Nursing from 1906 to 1916 and as a nurse in the Army Reserves during WWI. Chamberlain, a trained nurse from New York arrived in the valley in 1934.
Two other nurses soon became involved in what was quickly becoming a legal imbroglio. Ogden had refused Adams a view of Peshak’s body on his first visit and did so again when he returned with the sheriff. Ogden apparently informed him, however, that she would allow the local doctor, I. W. Allen, to have look. So Adams went to Dr. Allen’s clinic, found two of his nurses there, and asked them to assist him in one more effort to examine the body. Once again, Adams, the nurses, and a group of curious tagalongs who accompanied them were denied access to the body. Finally Adams was able to contact Dr. Allen and convince him to go out to the community to determine whether Peshak’s unburied corpse posed a public health hazard (which would have provided legal means for a coerced burial). After wrapping things up for the day at the clinic, Dr. Allen made his way out to Dry Valley, once again assisted by his two assistants, nurses Leda Young and Dorothy Bayles.
Leda Young later recalled what happened: Ogden met them on the road and only allowed Dr. Allen to go in to examine Peshak’s body. Fifteen or twenty minutes later he emerged from Ogden’s cabin, “chuckling all over” as Ogden escorted him back to the car. After “considerable persuasion,” Allen finally convinced Ogden to allow his nurses to examine the body to see if they could detect a pulse—something he apparently had failed to do. This is what Leda Young remembered:
We found the two nurses had everything well in hand. Twice a day they gave the patient a salt bath, and a milk enema. The milk was to give her nourishment and replace the dead cells in the live tissue, and the salt baths kept her clean, and well preserved. The nurses instructed us to press our fingers in the soles of the patient’s feet, and when we could not detect any pulse they had us press our fingers on the crown of her hear head. Since we could not find a pulse the nurses determined we did not have a sixth sense, something they professed to have. Dorothy and I were not fooled. We knew poor Mrs. Peshak was a corpse, well preserved and very clean. She has skin stretched over small bones with no muscle or fat, as she had died of cancer, no telling how long ago. However, there definitely was no public health hazard, so we drove away exited [sic] over what we had seen.The issue was, for the time being, laid to rest, even if Edith Peshak’s body was not.
Several obvious themes unite these two vignettes. But a question I want to explore here: Is there something western about these encounters with—these denials of—death? Or are they both simply incidents that happened to occur in the West? Of course, Grandpa Bedo’s death occurred in Norway, but the body was then moved to the West—to the Oakland Cryonics center—for preservation, and then settled in the Rockies for the deep freeze (a movement similar in some thematic ways to Maynard Dixon’s migration: roving east from California to see the “true West”). Similarly, Marie Ogden’s movement began on the East Coast but then moved west in their quest for a site for a metaphysical community that would allow them to transcend death and live forever. Marie Ogden’s writings about the Home of Truth are full of rhetoric about the desert and the West—“our desert home” our “Western abode”—such that they seem to be crucial elements in her thinking about the apocalypse and survival into the new age. Granted, these are only two examples, not enough to make any firm conclusions, and there are surely counterexamples—eastward movements to defy death—but the movement still intrigues me. South and West: the directions of Thoreau’s Walking, the direction of freedom. Is escape from death—to the Western mind (if I can posit such a thing)—the ultimate freedom? Is there a certain strain of American religious thinking in regards to death and immortality that, at least for a portion of the population, suggests—and often leads to—a westering movement: a migration? Westward the quest of immortality takes its way?