Inside The Immortality Business
Thanks to a small but devoted core of true believers and an infusion of Silicon Valley research funds, the once-revered, much-reviled science of cryopreservation may itself be coming back from the dead. Welcome to Alcor, where death is merely a temporary setback.
"In practice, before long the objectors will include only a handful of eccentrics." — Robert Ettinger, author, The Prospect of Immortality, forefather of modern cryonics, in 1965
"I have some nuanced feelings about death. In general I think that death is obviously not a good thing." — Ken Hayworth, cognitive neuroscientist, reluctant cryonicist, 2012I. Mail the Check Before You Die Some things should not be left to the last minute. For instance, having yourself frozen. The act of being preserved in a giant thermos cooled by liquid nitrogen in the hopes that the scientists of the future will figure out how to revive you and repair whatever it was that drove you to require freezing in the first place is no small matter. There are insurance policies to settle upon. Legal documents to notarize. Relatives to appease. And all of this must be done far enough in advance that arrangements can be made for a field response team to reach you on your deathbed and stand by until a doctor declares you medically deceased, at which time they will leap into action and begin your cryopreservation. Legally speaking, cryonics is okay because it's considered an extravagant funeral practice. Its few practitioners would not argue with the notion that the procedure would be more effective if started before the heart has taken its final beats, but to do so would be illegal, even if the soon-to-be-deceased is a willing participant. Thus, the process waits for death, and the longer after death it begins, the worse off you are. This is why the Alcor Life Extension Foundation really doesn't like to accept last-minute cases. And, yet, shit happens. The weekly tour at Alcor's Scottsdale, Arizona headquarters is Tuesday at 10am, and I arrived early, hoping to beat whatever crowd might turn up. But there was no one waiting outside the single-story building, sand-colored like everything in Arizona, and located in an office park just outside the perimeter fence of the Scottsdale airport, where the moguls of greater Phoenix park their Lear jets. There didn't even appear to be anyone inside, and it took two dings of the electronic doorbell before a harried-seeming woman unlocked the door and eyed me suspiciously. "The tour has been canceled," she said. "I'm sorry, but we've got an emergency last-minute patient situation." Specifically, she was referring to the imminent but complicated arrival of a new "patient" — the body of a 90-year-old retired nightclub owner from Las Vegas who had verbally agreed to be cryopreserved several years before, but never completed his paperwork. It wasn't until the man's representatives called in a panic over the weekend to say he was on the verge of his final exit that he 100 percent committed, but before Alcor could go and retrieve his body, it had to wait for a bank transfer from the man's estate. On a personal level, we tend to keep death distant, to make it almost theoretical, until suddenly it is the realest thing you will ever experience, and then — as people like to say — you come to Jesus. Or, if you're one of a tiny group of optimistic contrarians, you come to cryonics. Despite being the largest and most stable of the two operational cryonics facilities in America (the Cryonics Society, outside Detroit, being the other), Alcor has to date frozen fewer than 150 people. The current membership of future frozen persons stands at just over 1,000 people, many of whom are still young and virile, so it is quite infrequent that a cryopreservation actually happens. "Sometimes months go by," explained D'Bora Tennant, the company's office manager and de facto PR/marketing person, and the woman who'd answered the door. "Sometimes we get a couple a month." She showed me to a seat in the lobby, on a gray suede couch. Behind the couch was a brushed metal partition embossed with Alcor's logo, and the blue walls of the room were decorated with framed portraits of current inhabitants of the facility's cold storage. Some had names, and were pictured in happier, still-alive moments, while others were stone-faced portraits with no identification. (It is a member's choice whether or not to be publicly identified.) There were noticeably more men than women. Other décor included a Japanese screen, a tropical plant with waxy leaves, and a mod coffee table in the shape of a squiggle; the overall theme was modern, with a mid-90s, Z Gallerie vibe, and the blue and brushed metal color scheme felt appropriately chilly. "We can't dispatch the team until the money comes through," Tennant said.