Steering his jet-black Cadillac CTS sedan along the streets of West Palm Beach, Fla., Brad Zahn offers a tour of the area’s cemeteries, one more tropically lush than the next. Zahn, owner of the Tillman Funeral Home & Crematory, embalms and buries people for a living. He employs his wife, Maribel, and one of their adult sons. Another son attends mortuary school. “My succession plan is in place,” Zahn says. He speaks evenly and wears muted business attire. One hand on the wheel, he seems the very picture of a confident entrepreneur. His demeanor turns anxious, however, when I ask about the funeral chain Service Corporation International (SCI). “How can you not be nervous,” he responds, “when the 1,000-pound gorilla gets even bigger?” In the death-care industry, as practitioners call it, SCI casts a long shadow. Based in Houston and publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange (NYX), it operates more than 1,800 funeral homes and cemeteries in the U.S. and Canada. It has 20,000 employees and a market capitalization of $4 billion. For 40 years, SCI has gobbled competitors as the pioneer consolidator of a fragmented industry. Although it has overreached at times, suffering a corporate near-death experience after a late-1990s debt binge, SCI is hungry once again.
Harry Potter brought the philosopher’s stone back as a cultural reference point, but the idea of a universal panacea against death is much older than J.K. Rowling. From Alexander the Great to Ponce de León, tales of conquistadors and rovers stumbling onto fountains of youth are a fable trope. Greek mythology addressed the horror of aging in the tale of pitiful Tithonus, kidnapped by the goddess Eos and granted eternal life. Eos f***ed up and forgot to specify that Tithonus should stay young as well as living, and so her kidnapped boy toy aged into a trembling old man, lasting on and on in babbling, incapacitated misery. In some versions of the story he turns into a cicada, but the moral remains: Eternal life without eternal youth is a curse, which is why RAAD wants both. ... The people who organized RAAD are members of the Coalition for Radical Life Extension, which is the nonprofit offshoot of People Unlimited, a Scottsdale, Arizona–based group that describes itself as “a community of people living physical immortality.” People Unlimited charges a $245 monthly membership fee, and holds regular meetings where members swap antiaging tips and listen to guest speakers. Many of the presenters at RAAD are also members or guest speakers at People Unlimited. ... The coalition’s online mission statement shoehorns immortality into a historical narrative of moral and social progress. ... “Asked whether they, personally, would choose to undergo medical treatments to slow the aging process and live to be 120 or more, a majority of U.S. adults (56%) say ‘no.’” The study also found that around half the people questioned had never heard of radical life extension; around half also answered that it would be bad for society.
For decades, the solution to aging has seemed merely decades away. In the early nineties, research on C. elegans, a tiny nematode worm that resembles a fleck of lint, showed that a single gene mutation extended its life, and that another mutation blocked that extension. The idea that age could be manipulated by twiddling a few control knobs ignited a research boom, and soon various clinical indignities had increased the worm’s life span by a factor of ten and those of lab mice by a factor of two. The scientific consensus transformed. Age went from being a final stage (a Time cover from 1958: “Growing Old Usefully”) and a social issue (Time, 1970: “Growing Old in America: The Unwanted Generation”) to something avoidable (1996: “Forever Young”) or at least vastly deferrable (2015: “This Baby Could Live to Be 142 Years Old”). Death would no longer be a metaphysical problem, merely a technical one. ... The celebration was premature. Gordon Lithgow, a leading C. elegans researcher, told me, “At the beginning, we thought it would be simple—a clock!—but we’ve now found about five hundred and fifty genes in the worm that modulate life span. And I suspect that half of the twenty thousand genes in the worm’s genome are somehow involved.” That’s for a worm with only nine hundred and fifty-nine cells. ... For us, aging is the creeping and then catastrophic dysfunction of everything, all at once. ... The great majority of longevity scientists are healthspanners, not immortalists. They want to give us a healthier life followed by “compressed morbidity”—a quick and painless death. ... The battle between healthspanners and immortalists is essentially a contest between the power of evolution as ordained by nature and the potential power of evolution as directed by man. ... Aging doesn’t seem to be a program so much as a set of rules about how we fail. Yet the conviction that it must be a program is hard to dislodge from Silicon Valley’s algorithmic minds. If it is, then reversing aging would be a mere matter of locating and troubleshooting a recursive loop of code.
The principal sources of inequality have changed over time. Whereas feudal lords exploited downtrodden peasants by force and fiat, the entrepreneurs of early modern Europe relied on capital investment and market exchange to reap profits from commerce and finance. Yet overall outcomes remained the same: from Pharaonic Egypt to the Industrial Revolution, both state power and economic development generally served to widen the gap between rich and poor: both archaic forms of predation and coercion and modern market economies yielded unequal gains. ... Does this mean that history has always moved in the same direction, that inequality has been going up continuously since the dawn of civilisation? A cursory look around us makes it clear that this cannot possibly be true, otherwise there would be no broad middle class or thriving consumer culture, and everything worth having might now be owned by a handful of trillionaires. ... From time to time, it turns out, history has pushed a reset button, driving down inequality in marked, if only temporary fashion. ... every time the gap between rich and poor shrank substantially, it did so because of traumatic, often extremely violent shocks to the established order.