[Paleopsych] NYT: (Alcor) Please Don't Call the Customers Dead
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The New York Times > Business > Your Money > Please Don't Call the
February 13, 2005
By RICHARD SANDOMIR
THE live-in customers at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation here
reside in eight 10-foot-high steel tanks filled with liquid nitrogen.
They are incapable of breathing, thinking, walking, riding a bike or
scratching an itch. But don't refer to them as deceased.
They may be frozen at minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit and identified by
prisonlike numbers. But to Alcor, the 67 bodies - in many cases, just
severed heads - are patients who may live again if science can just
figure out how to reanimate them.
"They're no different than a flat-lining patient who gets a
defibrillator to bring them back to life," said Joseph A. Waynick,
Alcor's president and chief executive. "With our patients, the only
difference is length of time."
Alcor is a small nonprofit company built on the spectacular wager that
it can rescue its patients from natural post-mortem deterioration
until a distant time when cellular regeneration, nanotechnology,
cloning or some other science can restart their lives, as if the
diseases, heart attacks, old age, murders or accidents that concluded
their first go-rounds had never happened.
So far, nobody has been revived. And there is little evidence that
anybody ever will be. The first intentionally frozen man, James
Bedford, is still here - 38 years after his official death and 20
years after he was moved from a storage facility where his family kept
him frozen in liquid nitrogen. No one has been thawed out, except for
a woman whose sister successfully sued to get the body out of deep
Alcor's most renowned frozen parts - the head and trunk of the
once-mighty Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer - are in
one of the gigantic tanks. He is there despite a protracted family
feud that balanced the slugger's will, which stated his desire to be
cremated, against a note he signed from a sickbed, which said he
preferred to be frozen. The note won.
What Alcor sells is hope - if only, so far, to a small sliver of the
potentially dead. But like its customers, the company is optimistic:
it sees itself primarily as a research facility that looks beyond the
old-fashioned post-death options of burial and cremation.
Alcor executives are convinced that cryonics will catch on someday,
and they have recently stepped up the company's marketing - inviting
the public for tours of its facility, for example - to make sure that
it happens sooner rather than later.
Still, with just one site, built in an industrial area of Scottsdale,
Ariz., Alcor is not yet a threat to the $15-billion-a-year business of
burying or cremating the dead. The same goes for the rest of the
cryonics industry. In fact, the company has only one full-service
rival, the Cryonics Institute, outside Detroit, which has preserved 68
bodies, including the mother and two wives of its founder, Robert C.
W. Ettinger, who is 86.
The service offered by these fledgling companies is not cheap. If you
hand your head - or "neuro" - to Alcor, it costs $80,000; if you
freeze your body, the price rises to $150,000. The Cryonics Institute
charges much less: $28,000 for a full body.. In any case, many people
who are willing to believe that their severed head can be reanimated
and attached to a new body at some unknown time in the distant future
are not ones to fret about costs. At Alcor, Mr. Waynick said that
nearly all the future frozen buy life insurance policies to cover
their fees, and designate the company as the beneficiary.
One such customer is Charlie Matthau, 39, a film director who signed
up with Alcor in his late teens after reading about it in a magazine.
His insurance premium, he said, "is cheaper than what I pay for
Mr. Matthau, son of the actor Walter Matthau, who died in 2000 and had
a traditional burial, says he recognizes that cryonics is on the
fringe. He said he asked his rabbi for religious guidance in his
decision. "People believe in the most bizarre stuff," Mr. Matthau
said. "It's a long shot that probably won't work, but it beats the
Mr. Matthau said he tried to persuade his father to join him in the
liquid nitrogen but did not succeed. According to Mr. Matthau, his
father said, "I don't want to do it because it might work and I don't
want to come back as a carnival act."
The carnival did not have to wait for a reanimation. It arrived in
Scottsdale with Mr. Williams's body in mid-2002, hyped by the
subsequent revelation by a former Alcor employee that the ballplayer's
head had been separated from his body. The resulting publicity
astonished the company, even though Mr. Waynick's predecessor, Jerry
Lemler, hoped at least a year in advance to capitalize on the fact
that Mr. Williams would be its slugger-in-residence.
In 2001, a year before Mr. Williams died, Dr. Lemler wrote to John
Henry Williams, the son of the slugger, about the "huge" impact of a
"postmortem disclosure of your dad's becoming an Alcor member." Dr.
Lemler, a psychiatrist, ended his letter by saying: "We've never had a
.400 hitter as a member. It's a genuine first for us."
But by the time John Henry Williams died in 2004, he had never let
Alcor acknowledge that his father was in the tanks. (Nor will Alcor
say if John Henry Williams is there, but he produced for the Florida
probate court a signed, unnotarized, oil-stained note saying he, his
father and his sister, Claudia, all wanted to be frozen post-mortem.)
Mr. Waynick said in a recent interview that any attempt to use Ted
Williams's presence to attract other customers was a "miscalculation."
Besides, he noted, Alcor's membership did not swell from the notoriety
that his head and body were in its tanks of liquid nitrogen.
Perhaps cryonics needed a sitcom, not a dead ballplayer, to bolster
its profile with a skeptical public. The quirky HBO series "Six Feet
Under" created a "comfortability for customers to speak more openly,"
said Robert J. Biggins, the president-elect of the National Funeral
Directors Association. "As dysfunctional as they were, the fact that
factual information took place in a funeral home raised the comfort
To raise the comfort level with its services, Alcor offers tours of
its facility to anyone wanting to take one. The tours include a visit
to the operating room, though not when a medical team prepares
lifeless bodies for freezing by pumping them full of chemicals to
protect their insides from ice formation or by taking 15 minutes or so
to saw off a head - technically a "cephalic isolation." The tours,
however, do include a walk through the "patient bay," the banks of
tanks full of bodies and heads.
Tanya Jones, Alcor's chief operating officer, has the ready smile and
willing demeanor of a hotel concierge. She wants to please, if not
proselytize, you. Her head - and perhaps her whole body - will one day
be preserved inside one of the tanks that dwarf her as she gives a
"The people who do this are very optimistic about technology and
believe life is worth living," she said calmly, but with subtle
excitement in her voice. "If we can prove this works, everybody will
know about us."
Proving that it will work, of course, will take time. Perhaps that
proof is what is needed to build a larger customer base. So far, after
33 years in business, the nonguaranteed promise of a second life has
yielded only 52 frozen heads, 15 gelid bodies and 721 warm-blooded,
still-breathing, dues-paying members. "Our market is so vast, but our
business is small," Mr. Waynick said.
Alcor is financially dependent on when its members expire. All will
die, of course, but they don't do so by an accounts-receivable
schedule. Of its $2.3 million in revenue in 2002, one-quarter came
from freezing fees from eight patients, but far more, 62 percent, from
donors like the estate of one Alcor "patient," Richard C. Jones, whose
annual royalties from the situation comedy "Mama's Family" go to
Alcor. The rest comes from members, who pay dues of up to $398 a year
to support the foundation.
In 2003, with fewer donations and about four or five new freezees, Mr.
Waynick said, revenue dropped to $1.2 million. Financial documents
were unavailable for 2004, but Mr. Waynick said there were eight new
patients, or "cryosuspensions."
Most people who join Alcor were previously convinced of cryonics'
promise and are not frightened by the absence of a guarantee of
awakening in the distant future or by the grisliness of removing their
heads, Mr. Waynick said. "They've pretty much made up their mind about
doing this," he said. "For those who know cryonics, there's no problem
with us" - or the suggestion that life insurance be deployed to
prepare for a second life.
These are the word-of-mouthers, life-extension advocates and the
curious, who, like Mr. Matthau, want a little zing in their afterlife.
Alcor knows that the rest of its potential market - that is, almost
everyone else - needs an education. The company tries to do much of
that on its Web site, www.alcor.org, a comprehensive archive of
newsletters, scientific papers, patient case studies (with
minute-by-minute, play-by-play of their surgeries), operating-room
photographs and membership documents.
But what of grabbing more of the burial-cremation market? Whose bodies
and heads will reside in the tanks - with a capacity of 300 whole
bodies or 900 heads - that will fill the new patient bay currently
being built? Is waiting only for true believers a valid marketing
"In a sense it should be easy to market," said Mary Roach, author of
"Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers" (Norton, 2003). "You're
marketing immortality." But, she said, "I find the head-freezing
business a little, not strange, but overhopeful, a little too
ALCOR says it is not sitting still while its potential customers are
buried or turned to ashes, nor is it waiting to react to another
tabloid frenzy like the Williams case. It recently completed a
30-minute documentary, which it wants to broadcast as a
cable-television infomercial and sell on DVD. It has opened its doors
to local community college students who are studying mortuary science.
It also hopes to expand its annual scientific conference to a wider
"It's been easy to sell the true story that this is a scientific
endeavor," said Deborah Johnson, Alcor's public relations consultant
and producer of the documentary. "We think there are a tremendous
number of people who might be interested in becoming members if they
knew we existed."
For Mr. Waynick, the ultimate goal of Alcor's cautiously aggressive
campaign is to lure enough people away from burial and cremation to
build a bigger business and prove to skeptics that medical research,
not some kind of voodoo, is being performed inside the company's pale
blue stucco exterior walls. After all, with the new patient bay, and
the ability to work on two patients at a time in a new operating room
that is being built, there is plenty of room to capitalize on Alcor's
peculiar brand of patient care.
"We want to save lives," said Mr. Waynick, one of the few who have
signed up to be a future head and a trunk in one of the tanks. "And if
the result of that is fewer people will go to funeral homes, I will
feel bad for the funeral homes. But I will feel better for the
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