The live-in customers at the Alcor Life Extension
Foundation in Arizona reside in eight 10ft-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
"They’re no different than a flat-lining patient who gets a
defibrillator to bring them back to life," says Joseph A
Waynick, Alcor’s president and chief executive. "With our
patients, the only difference is the 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 goes round had
never happened. It’s an idea that’s been around since the late
19th century, when Kincardine-born Sir James Dewar began his
research into cryogenics.
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 baseball
player - are in one of the gigantic tanks. He is there despite
a protracted family feud that balanced the player’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 to take tours of its facility,
for example - to make sure that it happens sooner rather than
Still, with just one site, built in an industrial area of
Scottsdale, Arizona, Alcor is not yet a threat to the £8
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
£42,000; if you freeze your body, the price rises to nearly
£80,000. The Cryonics Institute charges much less: £14,800 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, Waynick says that
nearly all the future frozen buy life insurance policies to
cover their fees, and designate the company as the
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 says, "is cheaper
than what I pay for parking".
Matthau, son of the actor Walter Matthau, who died in 2000
and had a traditional burial, says he recognises that cryonics
is on the fringe. He asked his rabbi for religious guidance in
his decision. "People believe in the most bizarre stuff,"
Matthau says. "It’s a long shot that probably won’t work, but
it beats the alternative."
Matthau tried to persuade his father to join him in the
liquid nitrogen but did not succeed. According to Matthau, his
father’s view was: "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 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
Waynick’s predecessor, Jerry Lemler, hoped at least a year in
advance to capitalise on the fact that Williams would be its
In 2001, a year before Williams died, Lemler wrote to John
Henry Williams, the son of the slugger, about the "huge"
impact of a "post-mortem disclosure of your dad’s becoming an
Alcor member". 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, unnotarised,
oil-stained note saying he, his father and his sister,
Claudia, all wanted to be frozen post mortem.
But perhaps cryonics needed a sitcom, not a dead
ballplayer, to bolster its profile with a sceptical public.
The quirky HBO series Six Feet Under created a "comfortability
for customers to speak more openly," says 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
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 is preparing lifeless bodies for freezing by
pumping them full of chemicals to protect their insides from
ice formation nor when they are 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 demeanour of a hotel concierge. She wants to
please, if not proselytise. 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 says 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
non-guaranteed 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," Waynick says.
Alcor is financially dependent on the timing of its
members’ expiring. All will die, of course, but they don’t do
so by an accounts-receivable schedule. Of its £1.2 million in
revenue in 2002, one-quarter came from freezing fees from
eight patients, but far more, 62 per cent, came from donors
such as 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 £210 a year to support the foundation.
In 2003, with fewer donations and about four or five new
freezees, Waynick says revenue dropped to £635,000. Financial
documents were unavailable for 2004, but Waynick says 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, Waynick says. "They’ve
pretty much made up their minds about doing this. For those
who know cryonics, there’s no problem with us." Nor, it would
seem, with 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 Charlie 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 website,
www.alcor.org, a comprehensive archive of newsletters,
scientific papers, patient case studies (with minute-by-minute
play of their surgeries), operating-room photographs and
But what of grabbing more of the burial-cremation market?
Whose bodies and heads will reside in the tanks - with a
capacity for 300 bodies or 900 heads - that will fill the new
patient bay currently being built? Is waiting for true
believers a valid marketing strategy?
"In a sense it should be easy to market," says Mary Roach,
author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Norton,
2003). "You’re marketing immortality." But, she says, "I find
the head-freezing business a little ... over-hopeful, a little
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-TV 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 endeavour," says 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 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 sceptics
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 capitalise on Alcor’s
peculiar brand of patient care.
"We want to save lives," says 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 that fewer people will go
to funeral homes, I will feel bad for the funeral homes. But I
will feel better for the people." sm
Things to do when you’re dead
When Sir James Dewar pioneered cryogenics, inventing the
vacuum flask and producing liquid hydrogen in the 1890s, the
Scots scientist could never have imagined that his work would
have led to cryonics, where corpses are cooled to a state of
cryostasis and natural decay is suspended.
In the UK, there is as yet no equivalent to Alcor, the US
corpse-storage facility, but last year Britain’s first
cryogenic freezer was installed at Plymouth International
Business Park and registered as a medical device for the
storage of human tissue samples. And though just two Scots,
now living in the US, are listed as members of Alcor’s UK
branch, the company has had five enquiries from Scotland about
their services. Cryonics Europe, meanwhile, is a support and
discussion group based in Sussex, with members in Scotland,
England and Ireland.
Cryonics is not the only unusual way of dealing with the
human body after death. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was
blasted into orbit in the world’s first space funeral in 1997.
He was joined in the Pegasus rocket (above, with inventor
Antonio Elias) by the remains of 1960s drug guru Timothy Leary
and rocket scientist Kraffte Ehricke. Houston-based Space
Services offers this trip for £530 per gram of cremated
If you’d like a more glitzy final destination, why not have
the carbon in your ashes compressed and converted into a
Lifegem (left)? These jewels cost from £1,320, rising to
£7,395 for a .90 to .99 carat gem. It works for animals, too -
the ashes of a pony named Lucky were recently set in a ring
for his owner, at a cost of £2,250.
Burial at sea is perhaps a more common request, although
there are only 50 British burials at sea a year, and there are
only three UK locations where they can take place - to avoid
bodies being washed up or trawled back up by fishing boats.
American company Eternal Reefs can get around these
complications by adding the ashes of your loved one to a
commercial reef ball (right) in the Gulf of Mexico.
For an eco-friendly funeral contact the Natural Death
Centre, which campaigned in 1991 for cardboard coffins to be
made available in the UK. There are now seven varieties to
choose from - and more than 180 natural burial grounds, run by
local authorities, farmers and charities. Under Scottish law
it’s possible to be buried on your own land and you can have
your ashes scattered anywhere, including your garden, though
some environmental and health checks must be made first. Green
party leader Mike Woodin stuck to his ecological principles
when he was buried in a cardboard coffin - it was towed to the
cemetery by bicycle.
Alternatively, exhibitionists can undergo preservation by
plastination, where body tissue is saturated with special
plastics, allowing it to be displayed in upright, lifelike
poses and enabling the corpse to take part in one of Professor
Gunther von Hagen’s controversial Body World exhibitions. And
there is an even more eccentric route, followed by undertaker
Bill Earl, the author of Your Death is My Life. When Earl died
last October, he chose to have his coffin decorated with
cauliflowers, in line with his maxim: "The only useful flowers