[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
Customers Dead
February 13, 2005



    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, [1]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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