Please Don't Call the Customers Dead
By RICHARD SANDOMIR
February 13, 2005
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 prisonlike 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.
"They're no different than a flat-lining patient who gets a defibrillator to bring them back to life," said Joseph A. Waynick , Alcor's president and chief executive. "With our patients, the only difference is length of time."
Alcor is 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.
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 the slugger's 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.
What Alcor sells is hope - if only, so far, to a small sliver of the potentially dead. But like its customers, the company is optimistic: it sees itself primarily as a research facility that looks beyond the old-fashioned post-death options of burial and cremation.
Alcor executives are convinced that cryonics will catch on someday, and they have recently stepped up the company's marketing - inviting the public for tours of its facility, for example - to make sure that it happens sooner rather than later.
Still, with just one site, built in an industrial area of Scottsdale , Ariz. , Alcor is not yet a threat to the $15-billion-a-year business of burying or cremating the dead. The same goes for the rest of the cryonics industry. In fact, the company has only one full-service rival, the Cryonics Institute, outside Detroit , which has preserved 68 bodies, including the mother and two wives of its founder, Robert C. W. Ettinger , who is 86.
The service offered by these fledgling companies is not cheap. If you hand your head - or " neuro " - 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. At Alcor , Mr. Waynick said that nearly all the future frozen buy life insurance policies to cover their fees, and designate the company as the beneficiary.
One such customer is Charlie Matthau , 39, a film director who 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."
Mr. 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," Mr. Matthau said. "It's a long shot that probably won't work, but it beats the alternative."
Mr. Matthau said he tried to persuade his father to join him in the liquid nitrogen but did not succeed. According to Mr. Matthau , 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."
The carnival did not have to wait for a reanimation. It arrived in Scottsdale with Mr. Williams's body in mid-2002, hyped by the subsequent revelation by a former Alcor employee that the ballplayer's head had been separated from his body. The resulting publicity astonished the company, even though Mr. Waynick's predecessor, Jerry Lemler , hoped at least a year in advance to capitalize on the fact that Mr. Williams would be its slugger-in-residence.
In 2001, a year before Mr. Williams died, Dr. Lemler wrote to John Henry Williams, the son of the slugger, about the "huge" impact of a "postmortem disclosure of your dad's becoming an Alcor member." Dr. Lemler , a psychiatrist, ended his letter by saying: "We've never had a .400 hitter as a member. It's a genuine first for us."
But by the time John Henry Williams died in 2004, he had never let Alcor acknowledge that his father was in the tanks. (Nor will Alcor say if John Henry Williams is there, but he produced for the Florida probate court a signed, unnotarized , oil-stained note saying he, his father and his sister, Claudia, all wanted to be frozen post-mortem.)
Mr. Waynick said in a recent interview that any attempt to use Ted Williams's presence to attract other customers was a "miscalculation." Besides, he noted, Alcor's membership did not swell from the notoriety that his head and body were in its tanks of liquid nitrogen.
Perhaps cryonics needed a sitcom, not a dead ballplayer, to bolster its profile with a skeptical public. The quirky HBO series "Six Feet Under" created a " comfortability for customers to speak more openly," said Robert J. Biggins , the president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association. "As dysfunctional as they were, the fact that factual information took place in a funeral home raised the comfort level."
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 chief operating officer, has the ready smile and willing demeanor of a hotel concierge. She wants to please, if not proselytize, 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. "Our market is so vast, but our business is small," Mr. Waynick said.
Alcor is financially dependent on when its members expire. All will die, of course, but they don't do so by an accounts-receivable schedule. Of its $2.3 million in revenue in 2002, one-quarter came from freezing fees from eight patients, but far more, 62 percent, from donors like the estate of one Alcor "patient," Richard C. Jones, whose annual royalties from the situation comedy "Mama's Family" go to Alcor . The rest comes from members, who pay dues of up to $398 a year to support the foundation.
In 2003, with fewer donations and about four or five new freezees , Mr. Waynick said, revenue dropped to $1.2 million. Financial documents were unavailable for 2004, but Mr. Waynick said there were eight new patients, or " cryosuspensions ."
Most people who join Alcor were previously convinced of cryonics' promise and are not frightened by the absence of a guarantee of awakening in the distant future or by the grisliness of removing their heads, Mr. Waynick said. "They've pretty much made up their mind about doing this," he said. "For those who know cryonics, there's no problem with us" - or the suggestion that life insurance be deployed to prepare for a second life.
These are the word-of- mouthers , life-extension advocates and the curious, who, like Mr. Matthau , want a little zing in their afterlife. Alcor knows that the rest of its potential market - that is, almost everyone else - needs an education. The company tries to do much of that on its Web site, www.alcor.org , a comprehensive archive of newsletters, scientific papers, patient case studies (with minute-by-minute, play-by-play of their surgeries), operating-room photographs and membership documents.
But what of grabbing more of the burial-cremation market? Whose bodies and heads will reside in the tanks - with a capacity of 300 whole bodies or 900 heads - that will fill the new patient bay currently being built? Is waiting only for true believers a valid marketing strategy?
"In a sense it should be easy to market," said Mary Roach, author of "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers" (Norton, 2003). "You're marketing immortality." But, she said, "I find the head-freezing business a little, not strange, but overhopeful , a little too self-absorbed."
ALCOR says it is not sitting still while its potential customers are buried or turned to ashes, nor is it waiting to react to another tabloid frenzy like the Williams case. It recently completed a 30-minute documentary, which it wants to broadcast as a cable-television infomercial and sell on DVD. It has opened its doors to local community college students who are studying mortuary science. It also hopes to expand its annual scientific conference to a wider audience.
"It's been easy to sell the true story that this is a scientific endeavor," said Deborah Johnson, Alcor's public relations consultant and producer of the documentary. "We think there are a tremendous number of people who might be interested in becoming members if they knew we existed."
For Mr. Waynick , the ultimate goal of Alcor's cautiously aggressive campaign is to lure enough people away from burial and cremation to build a bigger business and prove to skeptics that medical research, not some kind of voodoo, is being performed inside the company's pale blue stucco exterior walls. After all, with the new patient bay, and the ability to work on two patients at a time in a new operating room that is being built, there is plenty of room to capitalize on Alcor's peculiar brand of patient care.
"We want to save lives," said Mr. Waynick , one of the few who have signed up to be a future head and a trunk in one of the tanks. "And if the result of that is fewer people will go to funeral homes, I will feel bad for the funeral homes. But I will feel better for the people."