Is Paying $80,000 to Freeze Your Head Worth Seeing What the Future Will Be?
Floating in a tank of liquid nitrogen, unable to control our destiny, is very unappealing. But it's much more appealing than being nibbled on by worms and bacteria.
From outside, the offices of America's largest cryonic-freezing center are more befitting of Michael Scott from The Office than Philip K. Dick. Tucked away in a bland, blue-gray office park in Scottsdale, Arizona, Alcor Life Extension Foundation rests against a backdrop of a sienna-toned quilt of strip malls, ranch homes, gun clubs, and cacti stitched together with slabs of highway that seem as wide and endless as the sunset vistas. But, if I wanted to confer with frozen bodies and household pets, it turns out, I had to head to the desert.
Cryonics—the science of using sub-freezing temperatures to preserve people in the hope that resurrection may come in the future—is a pseudo Easter for atheists. Upon arriving in Alcor's office, I counted myself among its skeptics. The nonprofit's nine employees smiled as they buzzed amid shiny silver walls and framed photographs of the currently frozen, a sort of doctor's office meets Deep Space Nine. Alcor has 149 bodies and heads stored at 300 degrees below zero, including a Chinese science-fiction author, a little girl from Thailand, and baseball icon Ted Williams, among others. (But not, representatives said, Walt Disney, contrary to popular belief.) And the foundation is looking to expand; more than 1,100 people, or "cryonauts," have committed to doing the same deep freeze. About a quarter of them, Alcor says, work in technology, and most committed to the postmortem freeze in their 40s rather than their silver years, seeing the body as a hackable machine just in need of a future reboot.
But behind the Jetsons-mortuary sheen, does cryonic freezing stand a chance?
Cryonics critics are manifold and vocal. The practice is currently illegal in some places, including France and parts of Canada, and many have argued that organizations like Alcor provide false hope to those who are most vulnerable to the pain of grief's weight—a Ponzi scheme devoted to the gathering of new member dollars in order to keep the older members chilled. Recently, in the United Kingdom, the mother of a deceased 14-year-old fought (and won) a legal battle to uphold her daughter's wish to be posthumously frozen. Writing in MIT Technology Review, neuroscientist Michael Hendricks calls cryonics a "false science," adding that "those who profit from this hope deserve our anger and contempt." In 2006, the cryonics movement was dealt a setback when the son of two cryonauts discovered a freezer had malfunctioned and his parents had thawed, and similar macabre "suspension failures" go back at least to the 1960s.
However, to Linda Chamberlain, who co-founded Alcor in 1972, the notion of cryonics is "liberating." Chamberlain told me that she is among those committed to postmortem freezing and her husband, Fred, who died of cancer in 2012, is already in Alcor's vault. "You know that there's a very good possibility that even if something happens to you," she said, "you'll have another chance to play."
Chamberlain and her husband met at one of the first cryonics meetings in California in the late 1960s and worked on the Alcor rescue team, which picks up bodies and begins the freezing process, for many of their 46 years of marriage. She now works part-time as special-projects manager at Alcor. "I can be closer to him and watch out for him," she told me.
Birdlike in build, and intentional in her tone, Chamberlain, sitting in front of a long timeline of cryonic history that hangs in Alcor's office, added, "Fred and I always planned to stay together. I had no intentions of remarrying or anything. I'm strictly gonna get him back."
The foundation prices whole-body preservation at $200,000; just the head (the "neuros") costs $80,000, and pet freezing is also available.
The timeline on the wall begins with Benjamin Franklin making mention of embalming people "in such a manner that they might be recalled to life" in a letter to a friend in 1773; stretches to when the academic Robert Ettinger published his 1964 tome, The Prospect of Immortality; and continues on to the present. Ettinger's work is credited with inspiring today's cryonics movement. But in spite of the title of his provocative text, Alcor does not promise immortality, Max More, the group's red-haired British chief executive, told me.
The general idea is that while those of us currently living don't personally know our human successors, it's worth trusting "our 'friends of the future'" (as Ettinger called them) to be better, smarter, more clever than we are. And that they will be curious enough about the world to want to bring us back, like a more sentimental take on Encino Man, or a real-life Futurama. To More, the cryonauts are neither cult members nor profiteers nor weirdos; they're just misunderstood and intrigued by the limits of a human potential. "We're offering a chance," More said, "to have a second life."
"None of us want to do this," More said of dying. "Floating in a tank of liquid nitrogen, unable to control our destiny, is very unappealing. But it's much more appealing than being nibbled on by worms and bacteria. Or incinerating in a giant oven." But cryonics, he told me, is "a chance, and it's uncertain. We can't guarantee the technology will ever be developed. But it seems likely. It doesn't violate the laws of physics. It's a matter of technical development."
Alcor's rates, depending on what you're looking for, can be quite costly. The foundation prices whole-body preservation at $200,000; just the head (the "neuros") costs $80,000, and pet freezing is also available. Often life insurance policies, which Alcor does not offer, help pay the bill. And Alcor does not receive referral fees for the policies, More said. About half of the cost goes to a patient-care trust, which is intended to last longer than the current Alcor administration and buffer the frozen from future financial uncertainty (even though there is no way of knowing what currency will be like if a thaw were to happen). There is "the misconception that this is only for rich people, which it's not," More said. "If you pay with life insurance, it's about the same as getting a Starbucks every day."
During my visit, More took me to an operating room of sorts, and under bright, convenience-store-style lighting, he guided me through a demonstration of what Alcor representatives do with a body the moment it's proclaimed dead. Alcor maintains a "watchlist," he said, of those who are terminally ill, and tries to reduce the time between death and freeze to better reduce any potential damage. Surgeons hired on contract, employees, and other volunteers make up the rescue team, and though many of them live in Scottsdale, they can be dispatched elsewhere. "We're not yet at the stage with suspended animation like in the movies," More said while we stood over a gurney with a rubberized, life-size Ken doll, surrounded by plastic ice cubes. "Yet."
Once on the gurney, the body would be injected with about 16 to 17 different substances—including anticoagulants and antacids—the first one being the anesthetic Propofol. GoPros record the entire process, both for family members and for other researchers. Case studies are, in some cases, made public or redacted.
Whether scientifically nutty or not, cryonics are—literally—banking on a world that is better than the one we live in today.
Clinical as it all seemed, it still felt totally weird. I asked More whether he thought the general vibe around cryonics will normalize. He pointed to recent innovations like the mainstreaming of in vitro fertilization and organ donations as examples of once-impossible innovations that have helped people in and out of the medical community to open up to the idea of freezing.
"I think we're kind of a bit like Leonardo da Vinci when he designed helicopter wings and other flying devices. People probably thought he was a bit nuts back then, but he was right. He just couldn't build them because he didn't have the tools and technologies. The principles were right," More said. "Or, say, 1960. Let's put someone on the moon. How are we going to do that? We don't have big enough rockets. We don't have life-support systems. They had no clue, but within ten years, it was done."
I found myself curious about when, if at all, the frozen become thawed. And if, once resurrected, how much of one's personality remains? If I were frozen and thawed, would my memories—be they my ATM PIN number or a treasured time spent with loved ones—be there when the cube becomes a puddle?
More pulled up a scan of Fred Chamberlain's brain on a flat-screen monitor and, pointing to various parts of the almond-shape mass of neon pink, purple, and blue, said, "It's very easy to think that all his memories are intact. Everything is still there."
In More's vision, cryonic freezing and thawing "should be doable," although it's hard to put a date on when it will occur. Fifty to 150 years, perhaps, he suggested. He then led me into another room, where, through bulletproof glass, a series of floor-to-ceiling canisters came into view. As we entered the freezer room, dozens of them surrounded us—shiny, reflective, cool, and smooth to the touch. On the current property that Alcor owns, there's room to store nearly 1,000 people.
Each body is wrapped in a sleeping bag of sorts, placed in an aluminum pod, and then slid straight down into the canister with three other bodies, along with five heads in the center column. The tubes are "basically gigantic, very expensive thermal flasks," More explained, turning on the lights. The walls are multiplated, and while a backup power generator supports the room, More assured me that power isn't necessary to keep the frozen from thawing, at least not for a few weeks.
As I continued to walk the halls of Alcor, however evocative the experience may have been of Space Age pulp, it was hard not to be struck by something that seemed far more unusual—optimism. Whether scientifically nutty or not, cryonics in Ettinger's time, and now, are—literally—banking on a world that is better than the one we live in today. It's a narrative of hypotheticals, in a time of profound cynicism and uncertainty. That oddly charmed me—regardless of any of the logic, science, and narratives I've told myself about death.
Standing in the freezer, thinking of all of the frozen heads and bodies that rested on the other side of the metal, I asked More whether a bright-eyed view is necessary to becoming a cryonaut.
"I wouldn't say all our members are optimistic," More said. "I know some pretty miserable people who are always thinking how things are going to go to hell. You have to have at least technological optimism, think that things are going to progress. Otherwise, you're not going to come back. I think more of us tend to be more optimistic than most of the culture, because most of the culture is really blinkered on the long-term perspective.
"People are always moaning how bad things are today. 'It's the worst it's ever been.' Bullshit. Just go back 100 years, or 200 years, or 500 years, or 1,000 years, or 10,000 years. See what life feels like then. Do you want to go back to a time when you couldn't own property, or your husband would own you? Or slaves? Or we had no painkillers or antiseptics? When three-quarters of children died in childbirth? No, thank you."
He sent me off with several issues of Alcor's periodical Cryonics, an application packet, and a handshake. As I perused the literature on the journey home, I wondered if, in spite of tomorrow's imperfections, whether taking a longer view—perhaps one even beyond a first last breath—may be a more productive mind-set in an era of malaise, whether one opts for the freezer or not.