Getting frozen to the future for $120,000 Calif. firm freezes bodies to await technology to revive them

March 06, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

RIVERSIDE, CALIF — RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- In death they stand on their heads nestled four to a canister -- the professor, the TV repairman, the writer and the homemaker. Submerged in super-chilled liquid nitrogen, they are as rigid as the breaded fish sticks in your grocer's freezer.

This is the easy part of achieving immortality through freezing, a technique known as cryonic suspension. The hard part comes when somebody thaws these four bodies and tries to bring them back to life.

If that ever happens, they and 21 other "patients" stored here at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation will become the Rip Van Winkles of the 20th century, albeit at a charge of up to $120,000 apiece (though freezing only your head costs $41,000).

The hope is that medical science will advance enough to revive everybody in about 150 years, ushering them into the future with renewed youth and vitality, even if also with a huge gap on their resumes.

But the future is getting a mite crowded at Alcor. At the current pace of sign-ups the facility will house a small, mute city of the frozen by the end of the next generation, with a population-in-waiting building toward 1,000, supported by a trust fund that already tops $2 million.

Critics, and there are plenty, call cryonics nonsense -- at best a laughable delusion, at worst a scam robbing bereaved relatives of money and a dignified farewell. Health departments and hospitals have occasionally fought cryonicists to their knees, although in recent years Alcor has overcome its challengers in a series of widely-publicized court cases.

And there's no denying that it's popularity is increasing here at the largest and richest of the world's three cryonics facilities (the others are in Oakland, Calif., and Oak Park, Mich.)

After two straight years of 33 percent growth, Alcor's sign-ups haverisen to 353, and another 140 people have begun the sign-up process, says vice president Ralph Whelan. Requests for Alcor's glossy 104-page information booklet trickle in at a rate of about 15 a day, compared to the rate six years ago of two a week.

It's difficult to guess any of this by looking at the place. The office backs up to a busy expressway in the middle of a small industrial park. Next door is Starving Students Movers, and just around the corner is Vern's Precision Form Grinding. An ambulance parked by the front door is emblazoned with Alcor's Phoenix-bird logo.

The "patient care bay" where the 10 bodies and 15 heads are stored is a glorified garage. Three 10-foot high, stainless steel cylinders hold the bodies, while two steel-reinforced concrete vaults hold the heads. A red-lettered sign, labeled BIOHAZARD, warns of the AIDS virus within. Three of the heads belonged to AIDS victims.

Most of the time there is little going on in the building unless a member has just died. Then the place becomes a blur of surgeons and technicians, working to flush out a body's bloodstream and pump chemicals into the system that will help remove moisture from the body (to minimize the cell damage done by ice).

And, as any cryonicist will tell you, the quicker you can get a body into the deep freeze, the better the chances for good preservation.

After 24 hours at room temperature a dead body might as well be buried as frozen, some cryonicists admit.

But everybody gets frozen anyway, optimum conditions or not, and the people who sign up for freezing wouldn't want it any other way.

"Most of the people want to be suspended regardless," says Robert Ettinger, a Michigan physics instructor known as the "Father of Cryonics" for his 1964 book on the subject. "In other words, 'If you can find me, freeze me.' "

The greatest fear is being lost, whether vanished beneath the waves or incinerated by fire.

Then there's the bogyman of autopsy. "It is standard procedure in autopsy to remove the brain in sections, and of course that's not good," Mr. Whelan explained. "So we go into high-gear negotiating mode and work hard to get a non-invasive autopsy. But you don't always get your way."

Such efforts were put to the test in June, when Alcor member Michael Friedman, a Los Angeles attorney, was killed by an angry client who shot him five times in the head.

"We actually heard about the shooting on the news before we found out it was one of our members. There was a delay of almost 24 hours," Mr. Whelan said.

The good news was that "only one of the bullets actually penetrated his brain. But they had to remove the brain to remove the bullet. . . They immediately handed it [the brain] to us, and we were able to do our best to preserve it. But as you can imagine, this is really what you would consider a tragedy," he said.

Mr. Friedman had signed up to have his whole body frozen, but because of the autopsy he is now the only patient with his brain stored in one tank and the rest of his body in another.

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