SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - For true believers, the road to the hereafter takes an indefinite detour through a corporate office park.
There, inside a nondescript building with two palm trees out front, is the headquarters of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a nonprofit that cryogenically preserves the remains of its deceased “patients” in the hope that someday medical science will be able to revive them.
Inside are the frozen remains of some 91 people,including Mary Robbins, a Colorado Springs woman whose family fought an unsuccessful battle in El Paso County probate court last month to undo a will that stated her desire to have her head frozen at very low temperatures at the Alcor facility.
Alcor officials allowed The Gazette to tour the facility and interview Foundation employees who talked about its history, its approach to marketing and the typical profile of its members.
About three-quarters of them are men, most with a higher than average education level and often with some connection to the fields of science and medicine.
Except for the gender, that description fit Robbins, a retired nurse who died in early February at the age of 71 after a battle with cancer.
While Darlene Robbins opposed her mother’s transfer to Alcor, in testimony before a probate magistrate, she acknowledged her mother’s love of science and learning.
“She was a wonderful, vibrant woman who was always looking for new things to learn,” the daughter testified. “She said a day without learning something was a wasted day.”
Low key marketing
Alcor is one of five firms that offer cryogenic preservation and one of two in the United States.
The foundation has about 915 living members. About one-third live in California, where the nonprofit got started in 1972. Some members’ remains have been transported to Arizona from as far away as England.
Alcor officials say they do not do any advertising beyond maintaining a Web site and mailing information packets to people who make inquiries.
“A lot of our membership growth is through member referrals and word-of-mouth,” said Aaron Drake, Alcor’s transport coordinator. “It’s very passive,” he said of the marketing effort. “The idea is that we don’t want to have the appearance that we’re trying to sell something.”
Members do pay, however, for preservation. The current price list runs from $80,000 for preservation of the brain to $150,000 for a whole body suspension. Members are advised to pay an additional $30,000 “because the cost of revival remains unknown.”
Besides the Robbins case, Alcor has attracted publicity in earlier court cases.
Alcor made national headlines when the body of the late Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams was turned over to the foundation amid a squabble among his children.
The Williams case again landed the company in the spotlight when a former employee wrote a book alleging that staff did not treat his body with the proper respect. The company has sued the ex-employee for defamation in a case that is pending.
In Iowa, Alcor took a Burlington family to court seeking to disinter a member whose relatives had buried him instead of turning his body over to the foundation. That case is pending before the Iowa Supreme Court.
But most cases occur without such controversy, such as another Colorado Springs member whose body was transported to Alcor about six months before Robbins died.
The first “cryonaut”
Drake pulls open the blinds on a window that reveals a room where the bodies are contained in a series of stainless steel tanks or “Dewars” named after the 19th century Scottish chemist who invented the first vacuum flask.
The bodies and heads are packed in these containers suspended in 450 gallons of liquid nitrogen and kept at a temperature of -340 degrees Fahrenheit. No electricity is used so the containers are not susceptible to power outages, Drake said. They only need to be topped off about once a week. They can go three months before the liquid nitrogen completely evaporates.
Up to four bodies are placed upside down in each container on the assumption that if somehow the liquid nitrogen level falls, the heads will be preserved for the longest time.
The room is climate controlled and the containers are not cold to the touch, Drake said.
In the foreground beneath the window is a dented white cylinder that once held the remains of James Bedford, a 73-year-old retired psychology professor who became the first person in the United States to be frozen shortly after his death in January.
The cylinder was cut open after it was moved to Alcor where the body was transferred to one of their containers. Drake said several ice cubes that had been tossed into the container in 1967 were still intact.
Preserving ice cubes for decades is one thing. Preserving human cells sufficient that they can be somehow re-animated is quite another.
Skeptics of cryonics are quick to point out that there is no scientific basis today for bringing back someone whose brain or body has frozen.
One critic went so far as to dub cryonics “quackery’s last shot at you.”
In a September 2001 column for Scientific American, Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic said the flaw in cryonics could be compared to what happens when you freeze a strawberry. The water expands as ice and ruptures cell membranes.
“I want to believe the cryonicists. I really do,” Shermer wrote. But in the end, it seems more like a “secular religion” in its faith in future science. He described cryonics as “borderlands science, because it dwells in that fuzzy region of claims that have yet to pass any tests but have some basis, however remote, in reality.”
Alcor officials acknowledge that the science behind re-animation simply does not exist. In fact, their Web site lists a number of problems confronting such a science, including the fact that cryonics has limited support from mainstream scientists and doctors.
Drake notes that the Foundation does not promise members that they will someday be restored to life — only that the best efforts will be made to preserve their remains.
He also uses the strawberry analogy, describing a process where the body is drained of fluid shortly after death and infused with a chemical that acts like a biological anti-freeze.
Whether that process will someday and somehow bear fruit remains to be seen, but so far, 91 people such as Mary Robbins have placed their bet that it will.
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