A Montana man is counter-suing a cryonics organization for $1 million and to get the frozen head of his scientist father back.
Kurt Pilgeram alleges that the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, one of the largest cryonics organizations in the world, improperly removed his father's head, cremated his body, and sent the ashes to his family members. He also alleges that Alcor has refused to return his father's head to him so that he can cremate it.
“They chopped his head off, burned his body, put it in a box and sent it to my house,” Pilgeram told AZCentral.
Cryonics is the process in which human remains are kept in a frozen state until science has advanced to the point that they can be reanimated. It goes without saying that nobody knows if this is actually possible. The not-for-profit cryonics organization Alcor was founded in 1972, froze its first human in 1976, and its facilities currently house 170 people and 33 pets, according to the company's website.
The complex case began when Pilgeram's father, biochemist Laurence Pilgeram, died of a heart attack in 2015. The elder Pilgeram was a long-time supporter of cryonics, even giving a speech on the subject at a conference in 1971. According to the Santa Barbara Independent, Pilgeram's family claims that he wasn’t a fan of "neurocryopreservation" (just preserving the head), and so he opted for full-body preservation.
Court records state that the elder Pilgeram signed an agreement with Alcor in 1990, at the age of 67, to be cryogenically suspended until medical science could revive him. Pilgeram opted for whole body suspension, but the agreement states that Alcor cannot guarantee it will be possible or practical to follow its member’s wishes.
“He believed in cryonics, but he didn’t believe in mutilation,” his brother Jim told the outlet. “He made it awful plain to them people that he did not want to be just a head.”
Crucially, the elder Pilgeram died on a weekend, and his son claims that he was not able to reach Alcor staff for days. Speaking to AZCentral, Pilgeram related the experience to calling a “towing service.”
In order for a whole body cryonics preservation to be successful take place the body needs to be chilled almost immediately, Alcor say on their website. The organization recommends that members who are near death use a hospice near Alcor's office in Arizona so that staff can intervene almost immediately after death. The organization writes that patients who cannot be nearby, like those overseas, “are frozen directly in dry ice (‘straight freezing’) for shipment to Alcor and final cooling.”
Pilgeram alleges that Alcor promised that his father's body would be preserved and that the company "arbitrarily, fraudulently, and in bad faith" severed the elder Pilgeram's head and then cremated the body rather than deliver the remains to the family whole. "Inconclusive" tests have suggested the cremated remains may not be entirely his father's, the lawsuit claims.
Pilgeram alleges elder abuse, infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract, unfair business practices, and intentional misrepresentation on the part of Alcor.
James Arrowood, Alcor’s lawyer, said that it was possible to reach Alcor during the weekend at the time of Pilgeram’s death. Alcor argues that it wasn't alerted to Pilgeram’s death quickly enough to preserve the whole body, and court filings argue that "the fault of Pilgeram or others besides Alcor" caused the alleged damages, and that Pilgeram "failed to use reasonable diligence" to mitigate the alleged damages.
Moreover, Arrowood said that Laurence Pilgeram signed a contract granting Alcor license to ultimately make the call of how to preserve his body.
“The contract between Alcor and Laurence Pilgeram gives Alcor full discretion to convert Pilgeram from full body preservation to a neurocryopreservation [preserving just the head],” said Arrowood. “The reasons why that occurred will come out during the trail.”
Kurt Pilgeram's lawyer declined to comment.
The case is complex, with a history that goes back years. Alcor initially sued Kurt Pilgeram in 2017 after he allegedly attempted to stop his father’s life insurance from paying the not-for-profit cryonics organization, which, in cases like this, depend on such payouts for funding. The insurance company had previously asked the courts to force litigation between the parties to settle the dispute over who should get the insurance money. Pilgeram counter-sued, asking for $1 million in damages and the frozen head of his father.
Arrowood said that the science for preserving a head is the same for a full body preservation. Alcor charges $200,000 to freeze an entire body, but just freezing your head costs significantly less: $80,000.
The way Alcor preserves a body, or head, is by removing all the water in the body. Water expands when it's frozen, and so fluids are replaced with a chemical called a "cryoprotectant." Once this is done, the temperature is lowered with nitrogen to a “vitrified" state, which means a “stable ice-free state.” Eventually, the body is cooled to almost -200 C and placed in a metal vat, upside down, until it can be revived.
The case is set to go before the Superior Court of California court in 2020.
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