RIVERSIDE, CA A smoked glasss door lends an air of mystery to the Riverside, Calif., warehouse otherwise indistinguishable from its industrial-park neighbors Bill Bailey's Office Furniture, The Earl's Plumbing Service and Starving Students Moving Co.
|Inside, the tan concrete building is anything but commonplace:
It contains a mortuary in the making. Seven human heads, one body,
two dogs and a cat lie frozen for eventual revival in the care
of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. There's plenty of room
... Welcome to California, hotbed of a super-cold, second-chance technology called cryonics. By having their bodies or just their heads submerged in icy liquid nitrogen for decades or centuries, cryonicists believe they are buying a ticket in a lottery whose prize is life after death. Reanimation would come after medical science has found the cure to what was a fatal disease.
Cryonics challenges our understanding of life and death and the rhythm of nature. Its social, moral, legal and religious ramifications stir intense feelings as contradictory as they are personal.
The practice, which has been around for about 25 years, is reflected in an up-and-coming science called low-temperature medicine. As such, it touches upon many contemporary medical issues. For example, researchers are looking for ways of freezing major organs to bank them for transplants.
Cryonics has "no scientific foundation in fact," says Dr. Leonard Hayflick, a professor of anatomy at the University of California, San Francisco, school of medicine.
Assembly-line transplantations would save many lives and mark a signal advancement toward cryonics' end. But that goal is suspect in and out of the medical field and the country's few hundred active cryonicists are viewed by some critics as tassels on the lunatic fringe.
Even if reanimation ever became possible, the ability to preserve memory is "close to zero, in which case, you're bringing back a vegetable." But Alcor's president, Michael Darwin, 32, says: "For people living today, cryonics is the most powerful idea that exists." Darwin, née Federowicz, changed his name in honor of evolutionist Charles Darwin.
"It's very difficult to be objective about this one way or the other," says Gregory Fahy, an American Red Cross research scientist trying to freeze organs at its transplantation lab in Rockville, Md. "It's a very emotionally charged issue."
Cryonics is also an unregulated business. Even so, the organizations can't freeze people willy-nilly. They must wait until a person dies, or it's murder. Recently, Alcor came under investigation because of a decapitation. The case involves Dora Kent, 83, whose son (Saul Kent, president of the Life Extension Foundation and a founder of the New York cryonics society) brought her to Alcor on her deathbed. No doctor was present, Alcor didn't notify the coroner, and authorities want to learn if she was still alive when the procedure began.
|The terminally ill woman was at Alcor for about a day and a half, and...was denied medication and nourishment. Alcor members held a deathwatch.||Darwin insists Kent was dead first but acknowledges Alcor made
Early this month, the coroner's office sought to retrieve Kent's head for an autopsy to determine just how she died. An autopsy on Kent's body had proved inconclusive; it then was cremated. A spokesman at the Riverside County coroner's office said the head had been moved to an unknown location. Alcor declined to comment.
Deputy Coroner Rick Bogan hopes the case will bring regulation of cryonics: "They're not answerable to anybody."
If cryonics still seems like fodder for science fiction, its small but growing group of adherents see themselves as space-age pioneers. Many have hung around since the movement started.
Its quarter-century is cluttered with failures. About 30 people were frozen before 1973 and only one of them is still being maintained. The others were thawed, then buried or cremated. So, the industry currently exists for just 15 dead members and about 220 live ones.
ON A SUNDAY IN DECEMBER, 45 people gather for the annual Christmas party of the American Cryonics Society at a home in Berkeley, Calif. The university campus nearby was a hive of free-speech and antiwar activities in the 1960s, and some of the guests look as if they haven't much changed their hairstyles or their wardrobes since those days. Others, including members of San Francisco-based ACS, their families and friends, are more up to date. One woman wears Day-Glo green glasses that match her green sweater, and a man makes a grand entrance in a fluffy wig with purple spiked hair. Ages range from 5-month-old twin boys to 74-year-old Richard Marsh, editor of the society's 20-page newsletter.
Balancing paper plates, guests mill about the modest seven-bedroom home. No one strays to the attached garage that houses a homemade lab. It is here that Paul Segall and Harold Waitz, two scientists who share the house with 11 relatives and friends, have frozen hamsters in the hope of unlocking the mystery of cryonics.
In the garage are two refrigerators. At different times they have been used to freeze hamsters and ice cream. "We wash the freezer out before we put food back in," Segall says. Such is the price of a science with little funding, scant following and much ridicule.
People who want to be frozen when they die and those who don't have very individual reasons for their decisions. Marsh, a retired college English professor and broadcaster, and an occasional marathon runner, explains: "I like it around here. I haven't scratched the surface. I've never been a ballet dancer or a nuclear physicist. I've never conducted the San Francisco symphony."
About five years ago he decided to have his body frozen when he dies. He's still trying to convince his wife, Lynne, 65, to make the necessary financial and legal arrangements for herself.
But Lynne Marsh wonders whether the $125,000 it would cost to freeze and care for her chilled corpse in perpetuity might not be better spent on someone alive and needy.
ACS favors freezing the body from head to toe, not just the skull, even though its president, divorce lawyer H. Jackson Zinn, has signed up head-only. And Trans Time, a commercial enterprise that does the messy procedure to put someone into suspension for ACS replacing the blood with chemical preservatives, wrapping and freezing the body has more heads in its care than bodies. But only one was an ACS member. The rest came in off the street, so to speak.
At Alcor, which is nonprofit, two-thirds of its 98 members have opted for preserving the head only, the so-called neuro approach. It's considerably cheaper, $35,000 rather than the $100,000 it costs to submerge and maintain a body. ACS charges $50,000 and $125,000, respectively, for head and body. A group in Michigan, the Cryonics Institute, charges a mere $28,000 for a body freezing. It cuts costs by using simpler and less sterile procedures. "It's silly to imagine a few germs introduced into a patient will make a difference in the overall damage the patient has suffered," says Robert C.W. Ettinger, the Cryonics Institute's president and the person responsible for launching the cryonics movement.
|"We find a fair number of people who are 'whole body' will switch
to neuro at the end," Darwin says. "It seems a senseless waste
of time to take along 100 pounds of peripherals." Switches also
are made involuntarily. If you've left instructions to have your
body frozen but haven't left enough money, Alcor automatically
makes you a neuro.
Dick Marsh considers neuro preservation "terrible PR" for cryonics.
|If you've left instructions to have your body frozen but haven't left enough money, Alcor automatically makes you a "neuro".|
Dave Seaborg, 38, is an associate member of ACS. He pays $25 a year to receive the newsletter, which discusses advances in science and dates of upcoming dinner meetings at places like Pizza Hut and Long-Life Vegi House. The society hopes to convert associate members to full members.
Seaborg may not be such an easy sell. A photographer and evolutionary biologist, he has worked with Segall on hamsters, but isn't convinced of cryonics' potential reward.
"I'm captivated by the idea of being able to live forever because I love life. But if I'm frozen, it wouldn't be able to get me back," Seaborg says.
Mary-Minn Peet came to the Berkeley party with Saul-Paul Sirag, a night watchman who was active in the Cryonics Society of New York with Segall and Waitz 20 years ago. Back then they were doing low-temperature experiments on mice in a garage lab. Although Peet likes the idea of peeking into the future, she worries she might return imperfect, "brain damaged or something."
THE EARLY DAYS OF CRYONICS were so primitive that Darwin refers to the era as "guerrilla theater," [says Saul Kent]. The groups were underfunded, the staff inexperienced, and there were no rule books to follow.
"We really learned on the fly," says Waitz, who has devoted so much effort to freezing work that he is known to friends as "Frosty." The revolutionary and visionary founders wrapped bodies in heavy-duty aluminum foil and used procedures more akin to mortuary work than surgery.
Most business came in over the transom. Relatives would contact the groups after a loved one died, hoping beyond hope maybe there was another chance. In their grief they couldn't think rationally, and after several years had passed, the maintenance bills were less and less welcome.
"If you want to be suspended, you have to make the arrangements yourself," says Arthur Quaife, president of Trans Time. "If you count on relatives, chances are small you'll be maintained. After five years, life goes on, and $4,000 a year is a lot to keep Daddy in suspension. They'd rather have a new car, and you end up out in the warm."
Once, Trans Time had 11 patients in its care. Now it's down to five. Some relatives stopped paying and bodies were returned. Alcor took in two.
Having learned the hard way, organizers now require full funding at the time of death, or "pre-need." No more pay as you go. The preferred way of funding suspensions is through a life insurance policy, naming a cryonics organization as the beneficiary. Unless, of course, you have $100,000 in cold cash. Alcor recently started requiring members to make Alcor the owner of the policies, too, so members can't drain them of funds.
In 1967, three years after Ettinger's manuscript was published, a 73-year old college psychology professor named James Bedford became cryonics' first human guinea pig, chilled after death to minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit. Although a surge of interest was expected to follow, there weren't exactly lines out the door.
Steven J. Mandell took the plunge a year later with the New York society. Today, Bedford rests at Alcor, but Mandell has been thawed. The New York society folded in the early 1970s, leaving relatives to deal with their frozen loved ones.
|Nelson froze folks for free, believing that business would boom and cover his costs. Instead, he went bust and abandoned the bodies.||They fared better than people who got involved with the Cryonics Society of California, a secretive group run by Robert Nelson, a television repairman. Nelson froze folks for free, believing that business would boom and cover his costs. Instead, he went bust and abandoned the bodies.|
For the most part, cryonics groups went unnoticed by authorities until the recent case involving Dora Kent, which thrust Alcor into the spotlight, much to its dismay. Deputy coroner Bogan says of Alcor, "It's not a hospital, it's not a research lab, it's not a funeral home, it's not a nursing home, and it's not recognized by the medical society. It's falling into all these cracks.
"No one has ever looked at them and said these guys need to be regulated," Bogan adds. "They kind of open up shop and bring in bodies. No one takes them seriously so no one looks at it." But he vows that if Alcor is to stay in business in Riverside, a watchdog agency will be set up to regulate it.
The California Department of Health Services regulates health hazards, "and freezing body parts doesn't present a health hazard," department spokeswoman Kassy Edgington says.
According to Darwin, Dora Kent was the first person brought to Alcor to die. Saul Kent signed up his mother as an Alcor member when she was too ill to comprehend his decision, Bogan says. "She had no say-so at all in what happened."
The terminally ill woman was at Alcor for about a day and a half, and during that time she was denied medication and nourishment, Bogan says. Alcor members held a deathwatch.
"They prepped her, shaved her head. They had everything ready to go and were waiting for her to die. Everybody there had a vested interest in her death so they could take her head, and this bothers us greatly," Bogan says.
A doctor who signed her death certificate said she died of natural causes at home. Darwin admits the group made errors but insists that Kent got good care.
"They don't appear to be criminals, but they're working with human bodies outside of any regulation," Bogan says. One of his first actions was to require Alcor to document the patients in its care. "You can't just hold heads in a garage. They have to be accounted for."
... MOST OF CRYONICS' MOVERS AND SHAKERS are self-taught. Few are physicians or surgeons, and the suspension team staffs that operate on the bodies, with the exception of an occasional one or two, aren't practicing doctors. Cryonics tends to attract computer and technically minded individuals, but overall the groups' members have eclectic interests aside from refrigeration.
... A videotape Alcor produced describes a suspension as "a medical and surgical procedure just like you'd get in a hospital, except none of us are board certified physicians or surgeons."
|Alcor performs suspensions, which take several hours, in a fairly sophisticated separate operating room in its new headquarters, which it boasts is larger than the open-heart surgery room at UCLA. Trans Time's operating table and surgical equipment are crammed in the middle of its warehouse under a plastic sheet. Quaife says that if and when it does a suspension, it would create a sterile field.||Trans Time's operating table and surgical equipment are crammed in the middle of its warehouse under a plastic sheet.|
Tell that to the flies circling about.
The first steps of the suspension involve packing the patient in ice, mechanically restoring circulation and breathing with a heart-lung machine administering drugs, draining the blood and inserting a blood substitute.
Then the corpse is shipped by air freight to the organization's suspension facilities for surgical work similar to open-heart surgery. An antifreeze type of solution to stem the freezing damage is inserted into the veins, and the patient is slowly cooled to 320 degrees below zero. If the customer is a neuro, the head is sawed off.
Unlike Egyptian mummies, which were packed away for centuries and forgotten, once these bodies are frozen they require continual care. The liquid nitrogen they soak in boils off, and the capsules must be topped off every week or two.
Trusts are established to support the ongoing care. As an ACS member, you can decide who will manage your trust. Alcor members must turn their funds over to Alcor. It can invest the money as it sees fit, but promises not to play the stock market.
"We don't hold ourselves as the wisest persons to hold this money for a century," Zinn says.
... SINCE CRYONIC SUSPENSIONS HAVE BEEN FEW and far between, cryonics reseachers stay in practice by experimenting on animals. Segall, Waitz and others have been working with hamsters for years, and both California groups chill dogs to perfect suspension techniques and study the effects of freezing on the system. ACS researchers plan to advance soon to monkeys.
Although both groups have experimented with dogs for some time, ACS members ballyhooed an experiment at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology last year on a beagle named Miles (for Miles Monroe, who wakes up 200 years after being frozen in Woody Allen's movie "Sleeper"). During the experiment, the dog was bloodless and cold but not frozen for 70 minutes.
The dog's temperature went as low as 3 degrees centigrade for 15 minutes with no circulation, and it was successfully warmed. But it wasn't a breakthrough. Alcor had done similar experiments and has cooled animals for four hours down to 4 degrees centigrade (36 degrees Fahrenheit). The researchers received a blitz of nationwide publicity, including an appearance on the Phil Donahue show. Miles lives happily with Segall and Waitz. ACS scientists, who do animal experimentation at Berkeley and private labs, are trying to extend a dog's cold state to eight hours.
The researchers consider Miles "the doorway to suspended animation."
"It damages cryonics," counters Darwin, who has had a long-standing feud with ACS. "It goes to further the image of us as charlatans. It's dangerous and could lead to charges of fraud against the industry as a whole."
Scientists have had some success freezing insects and frogs, but haven't frozen a higher animal and brought it back to life. The closest Segall and his cohorts came was to freeze a hamster to minus 20 degrees centigrade overnight. While it was thawing, they saw signs of circulation and possibly some electrical heart activity, Segall says. But the hamster didn't live.
SINCE CHANCES ARE THAT CRYONICS WON'T PAY OFF in their lifetime, some in the business are trying to commercialize it and see more immediate rewards.
|"It's either going to work or it's not. And if it doesn't, I'll
Irving Rand, of Cryonics Coordinators of America
|Trans Time researchers are seeking up to $750,000 through a major Wall Street firm to form a company, possibly called Trans Time Medical Products. It would sell doctors and hospitals a blood substitute and solutions developed by the researchers for use in banking and distributing organs.|
... ACS members have pledged $24 million in wills, trusts and life-insurance policies, Zinn says, "so as people start dying, there will be a substantial amount of money" coming in.
Trans Time thinks the potential is great. It notes in a release that the value of just one customer is considerable:
|From the time he first contacts us through the many years he is in a frozen state, the cash flow continues. Few businesses are such that the customer keeps paying even long after he is dead.|
The only catch is, business isn't booming. Trans Time hasn't done a suspension its only line of work since 1980.
It has an inherent problem. It can't root for people to die, and its clients, wanting to be reborn, certainly want to live this life as long as possible.
... Marketing cryonics, Rand wants to make cryonics storage more accessible and offer it in more traditional environments, such as cemeteries.
Darwin admits that "a cross section of members feel we need to soften the appearance of the place and make it warmer given the marketing problems this idea has," even though relatives of the frozen few rarely "stand around and weep." Instead of tombstones, photos of some frozen customers hang on a wall greeting visitors.
Don't look for bouquets; forget the wreaths. Dominating the "patient care bay," a garage area, are two clunky concrete cubes for earthquake and fire protection wrapped around the capsules. The capsules, or vats, originally designed as sperm tanks, hold aluminum pots; these, resembling pasta pots, hold the heads. The pots are submerged in liquid nitrogen. The whole-body patient lies welded into a mammoth horizontal capsule nearby.
Trans Time resembles a big, grungy garage. A worn sofa and a little throw rug are old and dirty, and a corroded mug had coffee in it about two months ago.
Is this the latest biotechnology idea run wild? No one has gotten rich off cryonics; organizers seem to be struggling to make ends meet. Quaife spends most nights in the warehouse; Darwin says he took a pay cut and moved out of his apartment and in with a friend.
Since the beginning of creation man has been trying to extend life but piecemeal, a disease at a time: the plague, polio, cancer, AIDS. When cryonicists talk about wiping out death all at once, people get nervous. Even the most ardent believers know there are no guarantees. Spending $125,000 may be cheap for immortality, but is a steep price to pay for lying in a capsule.
The bottom line is: Will the believers come back to life?
Darwin's response: "Here's this little band of 100 people in a little warehouse in Riverside, Calif., with about $50,000 in the bank, and they propose to keep people frozen for hundreds of years, if necessary. What do you think the odds are?"
Conceding they are tiny, he quickly adds: "But then, there's no alternative. Well there is, but it's an unacceptable one to me."
... Insurance salesman Irving Rand, of Cryonics Coordinators of America, says: "It's either going to work or it's not. And if it doesn't, I'll never know."
|Alcor Life Extension Foundation Homepage|
|American Cryonics Society Homepage|
|Links to other organizations|