24 September 2007

Freeze my head; Thaw my soul.

Speaking of nitrogen...

There's a company called Alcor out in Arizona. Its 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.

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 prison-like 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.

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 freeze.

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 his 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.

Alcor aren't the only ones fucking with cryonics but they really only have one full-service rival, the Cryonics Institute, outside Detroit, which has preserved 68 bodies so far.

The service offered by these fledgling companies is not cheap.

If you hand your head - or "neuro" - over 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. Alcor says nearly all the future frozen buy life insurance policies to cover their fees, and designate the company as the beneficiary.

Charlie 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," Matthau said. "It's a long shot that probably won't work, but it beats the alternative."

The 41-year old Charlie Matthau 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 parking."

Charlie tried to persuade his father to join him in the liquid nitrogen but did not succeed. 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."

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 C.O.O., has the ready smile and willing demeanor of a hotel concierge. She wants to please, if not proselytise, 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 tour.

"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.

Joseph Waynick, president and CEO of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, releasing an icy soul into the atmosphere

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