One Arizona cryonics facility is trying to bring science fiction to life. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation made headlines recently when it announced it was looking for people interested in being frozen after they die in hopes of being revived at a later date using medical technology from the future. The facility has over a hundred bodies stored in large cylindrical stainless steel tanks.
If you’d like to experiment with life after death, this is your chance. Just make sure your body and head wind up in the same tank.
Alcor was founded in California in 1972 before relocating to Scottsdale, Arizona in 1994. What looks like a typical office building is actually a cryonic vault filled with industrial freezers at sub-zero temperatures. There are 168 “members” being preserved in the tanks, as well as 90 pets, including cats, dogs, one turtle and one chinchilla. They’ve all technically passed away, but the company doesn’t believe they are actually dead. Instead, they say they are suspended in an in-between state.
The company can’t promise that these “patients” will be revived in the future. The founders refer to it as an ongoing experiment. They don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking they’ve found a way to bring people back from the dead.
Co-founder Linda Chamberlain says, “We want people to understand that this is still an experimental process. We don’t want anyone to come into this, make arrangements and think this is like going to the hospital and having open-heart surgery, that their chances are just as good. It’s not there yet.”
However, they’ve been able to attract their fair share of attention over the past few decades, even though the company doesn’t do any marketing.
Alcor has 1,250 “members” that are still alive, all of which have made legal arrangements to be placed in the facility’s thermos-like freezers once they die. Members must pay $200,000 for a spot in the icy tomb if they want their entire body preserved. You can also choose to freeze just your head for a mere $80,000 with the hope of bringing your consciousness back to life in a new body, and reservations for pets start at just $2,500. To pay for the slot, members must take out a life insurance policy for the same amount as the Alcor fee.
Who knew cheating death could be so affordable?
Preserving corpses is expensive. Every tank is kept at negative 320 degrees Fahrenheit and can store up to four whole bodies – or five human heads.
The idea seems to be more popular with men than women, at least for now. The company says 75% of its members are men.
Alcor isn’t particularly large. A lot of time may go by before one of their “members” passes away, which means adding a new “patient” to the collection. However, the staff says around eight members die on average each year. Some choose to remain anonymous when they pass, while others sign away their privacy rights. If the person doesn’t care about confidentiality, the staff will put their picture up on the wall in hopes of meeting them again one day.
Chamberlain says the photos help remind them “why we’re here” and “who we’re working for.”
The facility is home to the bodies of several notable figures, the most famous of which is baseball legend Ted Williams, who died in 2002, as well as Dick Clair Jones, a writer for The Carol Burnett Show, scientist Marvin Minsky, who helped develop the artificial intelligence lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and science fiction writer Du Hong.
From One Life to Another
The company has members all over the world. They quickly deploy a team to help preserve and bring the body back to Scottsdale, but it’s usually much easier if the person dies in the local community. The team includes two physicians, a medical response director, and Max More, the CEO of the company. They bring a folding ice bath and other equipment to wherever the member dies. They also contract with local laboratories if they need to infuse patients with cryoprotective chemicals that chill their organs.
Some people believe all this work is for naught. Alcor has plenty of skeptics that say the company is little more than a gimmick.
“It’s just not doable,” says Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at New York University. “The whole thing is too science fiction-y. I still believe no one will be able to do what they wish, which is to bring back the dead.”
The idea of suddenly being transported into the future may sound like the start of a great novel or TV show, but Caplan says the reality of jumping 300 or 400 years forward in time would likely be a nightmare. “I fear you would become mentally deranged by it all,” he said.
The Society for Cryobiology says the idea that future generations will want to restore humans or organs from the past “is an act of speculation or hope, not science.”
The nonprofit company isn’t regulated by an outside agency, unlike traditional medical facilities. It continues to depend on donations from its members and those anxious to see what the future will bring.
Despite slim odds, Chamberlain remains hopeful that Alcor will be successful in its efforts. She says lots of people are fond of the idea of coming back to life, so much so that the company recently received a $5 million donation from an anonymous donor.
As for eventually raising people from the dead, “Looking at the progress of medical technology just over the last 50 years; it’s more of a question of when than if,” Chamberlain said. “It’s been a part of my life for the past 47 years. I can’t really imagine not doing this for myself and my family. … I enjoy life and I don’t want it to end.”
Williams may be the most high-profile “patient” at Alcor, but his residency has caused quite an uproar. When members choose to have just their head frozen, they are considered “neuro”.
But Williams is known as a “neuro with whole body,” which means his head has been removed from the rest of his body and they are being kept in separate tanks.
Alcor no longer offers the “neuro with whole body” option because it says it’s “outdated,” but it used to be popular with members before the company learned how to cryoprotect the brain.
Chamberlain says Williams wanted to remain anonymous, “but there was so much newspaper coverage that it doesn’t do us any good to deny it.”
Word quickly got out after one of the staff wrote a tell-all book about their experience. They alleged Alcor mistreated Williams’ head in the cryonics lab, but the company denies this.
The “neuro” option hinges on the idea that future scientists will be able to grow the person’s body using their DNA. Chamberlain says this is usually the superior option, especially if the person is over the age of 40.
“Anybody who is over the age of 40 has a certain amount of blockages in their arteries and vessels, and those blockages will prevent us from introducing our cryoprotective chemicals,” she explained. “Their cryoprotection will be minimized because of that.”
However, she says some people get emotional about the idea of separating their head from their body.
If you have an extra $80,000 lying around, consider investing in a whole new you – circa 2321.