The first thing you see when you walk in the door to Joseph Waynick’s office is a freshly polished Emmy Award. It’s kind of shocking to see one right in front of you, sitting on a filing cabinet. Make a strong first impression – that’s the first rule of salesmanship. And Joseph Waynick is a great salesman. Great salesmen, as the saying goes, can sell ice to Eskimos. Joseph Waynick does them one better – he sells ice to the dead. Expensive ice.
In case you didn’t notice the Emmy (Apparently, people are prone to miss 10 pound gold paper weights) Waynick asks if you’re wondering about it right away. The award belongs to Richard C. Jones, he tells you, folding his burly black hands behind his head with the satisfaction that comes from knowing he’s got your attention and can take his time. Jones created the show Mama’s Family and won the award for writing episodes of The Carol Burnett Show. Stricken with AIDS late in life, Jones became an Alcor client and tireless supporter. He died in 1988, leaving Alcor all future royalty payments for Mama’s Family. (They add up to about $50,000 a year, an astronomical figure for anyone who has actually seen Mama’s Family.) He also left the Emmy, though Waynick insists the trophy is less a gift than a loan.
“He wants it back,” Waynick says. “He asked us to hold on to it for him.”
Waynick is the president and CEO of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. And if you’ve always thought burial and cremation seem like a one-way ticket to nowhere, you’re just the man or woman (almost always man) he’s looking for. When you die, he’ll ship your body to Arizona, flood you with chemicals, lower you to the temperature of liquid nitrogen, and keep you in a stainless steel vat. Doesn’t sound too appealing? Well, Alcor claims it’s your only chance for survival. In decades or centuries, the company predicts that the technology will exist to cure whatever killed you and to turn your popsicle-like self into a living person again. Several companies offer similar services, but Alcor, I am told, is the best. And so I have flown into Phoenix, determined to see if the people at Alcor are frauds, lunatics, or (a possibility maybe too outlandish to admit I am considering) visionaries.
The blistering Scottsdale desert seems a strange place to locate a business requiring constant cold, and Alcor headquarters is an unassuming location to go about declaring war on the grim reaper. It shares a squat, out-of-the-way building with “All About Décor” and “Jeanne’s Interior Design Showroom,” which seems to specialize in mafia chic. An optimist might recall that it was a lowly patent clerk named Albert Einstein who went on to discover the Theory of Relativity. I am not an optimist, and as far as I know the greatest thing most patent clerks discover is easier ways for people to patent stuff. At first glance, Alcor seems a lot closer to the latter than the former.
Inside, the Emmy makes quite an impression, and it needs to. The rest of the office looks like it has been hit with one of the whirling dust devils that frequently form in the desert outside. It’s such a mess of papers, pens, and file folders that he must move a large stack of clutter off a chair just for me to sit down. The disarray, coupled with some cheap and worn furniture, hardly presents the image of Alcor as a futuristic, cutting edge medical facility. There’s not much time to think about it, though. Waynick has the air of a man contentedly frenzied, and almost as soon as invites me to sit, he is up and ready to start showing me around.
The tour starts with a wall of photos of what Alcor somewhat optimistically calls its “patients.” Richard Jones is there. So is Fred Chamberlain Jr., the father of Alcor’s founder, who became the company’s first suspension when he died in 1976. Then there is FM 2030, a science fiction writer originally named Fereidoun M. Esfandiary who changed his name to express his hope for cryonics. “He believed that in 2030 we would see an end to death and possible resuscitation,” Waynick explains without skipping a beat.
All of the people on the wall agreed to waive confidentiality, Waynick assures me, though “especially members who are well known or very rich want to remain anonymous.” He seems to invite speculation about what famous faces he keeps in his fridge. The clients he name-drops – Dom Laughlin, who built the city of Laughlin, Nevada, and Charlie Matthau, son of Walter Matthau – hardly seem picked from the A-list. But Alcor grabbed headlines in 2002 when it became the controversial final resting place for Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams. Two of Williams’ children insisted the slugger wanted all three of them to be preserved so they could be reunited in the future, while another claimed it was a cynical attempt to preserve Williams’ DNA, possibly to sell it. Meanwhile, the public heard tales that the greatest hitter of all time was decapitated, upside down, and now featured several large cracks in his skull. After all the negative press, Alcor shut itself off and refused requests for interviews. But when Waynick took over as president in December 2004, he set out to rescue the company’s image and separate fact from fiction. (It turns out Williams’ severed, cracked skull is not, in fact, upside down.)
Preserving just the head is a popular option at Alcor. At $80,000, it’s a steal compared to the $150,000 for the whole body. The way Waynick explains it, the brain is what is important, and why would you want to be stuck in the future with your old body anyway? Andrew Clifford, an organizer for Alcor in England, says new technology will let you build a new body with your own DNA. He tells me hopefully, “If it works, then we’ll be back to the physique of age 30.” A faith in the constant advance of science that borders on the religious is a common feature of all the cryonicists I speak to. Alcor members talk confidently about nanotechnology, cloning, and stem cell research the way children talk about Santa Claus.
In the wonderful world of cryonics, you can even bring Fido along. Alcor has frozen 27 pets, including dogs, cats, birds, and rabbits. Alcor clients without families often worry about waking up in the future alone, Waynick explains. When a patient with a pet dies, a veterinarian euthanizes the pet and a crude version of the preservation process is performed. Pet preservation adds an additional charge, ranging from as little as $3,500 for a small pet to up to $50,000.There are limits, though. “We probably couldn’t take a horse,” Waynick admits.
Alcor is not the first company to attempt cryopreservation, but its predecessors quickly ran out of money and went under. When that happened, all of the patients were removed from suspension, out of and ironically out in the cold. Most were buried or cremated. Only the first man ever suspended – Dr. James Bedford – avoided defrosting. His family kept him in a storage locker for years and eventually turned him over to Alcor for safekeeping. Waynick assures me that Alcor has safeguards in place to prevent such a fate. When you become an Alcor client, about half of the money you pay goes into a trust fund, which Alcor claims will require only 2 percent annual growth to cover upkeep. The trust fund is a separate legal entity and owns the building, so that Alcor can go out of business without affecting its patients.
From the wall of photos, Waynick leads me to what he calls the “staging area.” The room is spare – four concrete walls painted white, and contains all the equipment for the “mobile rescue unit.” When Alcor receives word that one of its clients is dying, it sends a team to his bedside. Immediately after the person is declared dead, the team begins a process of rapid cooling by covering the body in ice. The corpse is injected with blood-thinning medications to prevent coagulation, while chest compressions are performed to keep the blood circulating. The patient is also given oxygen. This seems a little like refilling the gas tank on a totaled car, but Waynick claims it is all an attempt to prevent “biological death.” Later, the blood is removed and replaced with an organ preservation solution. The body is then placed on a plane, ideally arriving in Scottsdale within 12 hours of the pronouncement of death. “As we get closer to 24 hours, the more we get nervous about viability,” Waynick explains.
After the staging area, Waynick takes me to the operating room, which looks, surprisingly, like an operating room. Enormous lights hang over a white table surrounded by surgical tools, a heart-lung machine, and computers to monitor temperature and chemical levels. This is where Ted got a foot shorter. It’s up to the Alcor patient to decide whether to preserve his entire body or just his head. Until recently, Waynick recommended the latter option, since only the head could undergo what he calls “vitrification,” where chemicals are used to replace the water in cells. Without vitrification, every cell in the patient’s body ruptures like a water bottle in a freezer. But when I toured Alcor, the company was finishing work on being able to vitrify the head without separating it from the body.
From the operating room, patients are moved to the cool-down bay, where their body temperatures are lowered one degree an hour for seven to 10 days until they reach -196 degrees Celsius, the temperature of liquid nitrogen. “This isn’t a house of horrors. This is a legitimate research outfit,” Waynick insists. Still, he seems to get a macabre pleasure out of taking me to what cyronicists hope will only be a temporary home for Ted Williams, Richard Jones, and all the rest. The patient care bay is filled with 10-foot silver cylinders known as Bigfoor-dewars. Each essentially works as an enormous thermos bottle, keeping the bodies inside cooled by the liquid nitrogen that is pumped in. Each Bigfoor-dewar can hold about four full bodies, or 10 heads stacked on shelves. Since members are kept cool chemically, there is no risk that a sudden power failure might thaw grandpa.
Still, it seems a lot of things can go wrong during the process. If an Alcor client dies suddenly, the company may not hear for several days. Accidental deaths like car accidents can leave Alcor without much to save. Then there’s autopsy, which Waynick calls “the worst thing that can happen to you.” The slicing and dicing of the brain that goes into a normal autopsy would make any good cryonicist cringe.
Even when everything goes according to plan, there are problems. The “cryoprotectorants” that replace a patient’s blood are highly poisonous. And while the chemicals may keep the cells in the patient’s head from bursting, they do nothing to prevent cracks from forming on every large organ during the freezing process. Williams’ head includes nearly a dozen such fractures.
More damage can be done if the temperatures in the tank fluctuates, but Waynick points out the two spare liquid nitrogen tanks, each about the size of a water heater, kept on hand so that there is always an ample supply of gas. He is almost giddy as he offers to show me the steam produced when liquid nitrogen comes in contact with the air. He makes sure I am standing back and turns a valve on one of the spare tanks – nothing happens. He tries the other tank – nothing. Finally, he turns a valve on the tank connected to the Bigfoor-dewars – nothing. Remembering Waynick’s office, I imagine that somewhere there’s an overdue tank refill form buried under a stack of papers. Waynick mutters something about needing a refill and we leave the room. The smile never leaves his face, but it seems we are walking a little faster than we did before.
What would Alcor clients think, I wonder, if they knew the man they’d entrusted their eternity to had basically left the refrigerator door open? I have a feeling it wouldn’t make much difference. Alcor’s clients are the faithful, the true believers. And a true believer isn’t going to let some little mishap steal their hope for eternal life. Dave Kekich, who has been hooked on the idea of surviving his death since he first heard about cryonics in 1976, can’t get through a sentence without mentioning “genomics,” “proteomics,” or some other term I will have to look up later. Kekich works in venture capital, but strictly confines himself to investment in life-extending technologies. He is a member of the board responsible for investing the patient trust fund. Not only is the 62-year-old an Alcor member himself, he convinced both of his parents to be frozen. “I just felt that they brought me into the world,” Kekich said. “I thought it would be a way to return the favor.” He hasn’t been able to convince his sister to become an Alcor client, though he remains confident: “I think that’ll change as she gets closer to the day of reckoning.”
Women, it seems, are a harder sell. Only about a quarter of Alcor’s clients come from the fairer sex, and many of them are the wives of other members. “Men are more risk tolerant than women,” Waynick tells me. “Men are more like ‘Wow, this is really cool, sign me up.'”
Waynick ends my tour in a series of half-finished rooms that still smell like paint. The company has embarked on a renovation that will add a conference room, sparing those curious about cryonics from Waynick’s office. It will also double the size of the operating room and will quadruple storage space for patients. Waynick’s assumption of the reins at Alcor has marked a new drive for expansion and an advertising blitz. Historically, the company’s client list has expanded about 8 percent a year. After a serious marketing effort last year, Alcor is on track for 14 percent growth this year. Requests for information about Alcor have tripled. Over 750 people await cryogenic freezing, almost 10 times the number currently in suspension at Alcor.
Part of the company’s push includes efforts to attract cryonics adherents abroad. For an additional $15,000, members living outside the U.S. and Canada can be packed in dry ice and shipped to Arizona when they breathe their last. But while Waynick insists that it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight, Alcor UK organizer Andrew Clifford says a person who dies in London on a Friday will be lucky to be in Scottsdale by the following Friday. Alcor UK has only 17 members, and no other European country has even that many. Maybe not surprisingly, halting the aging process seems to be primarily an American obsession. As Clifford put it, “Being signed up for cryonics is the ultimate cosmetic surgery.”
When will the great resuscitation come to fruition? Talking to cryonics adherents, you get the sense that a breakthrough in the war with death is right around the corner – and that they don’t want to be the last ones to miss out on eternity. “We’re one of the last generations that’s going to live and die in a normal lifespan,” Clifford tells me. Dave Kekich goes ever farther, “I hope I don’t pass away. I think there’s a possibility that I won’t,” he says. “If I do, I hope for a good suspension, a timely suspension. When I wake up, I hope I have my memory. I think there’s very little doubt that I’ll be able to be revived. But I’m hoping for a good part of that memory and personality.” Still, FM 2030’s estimate may be on the short side. But Waynick’s guess is not much longer, somewhere between 50 and 150 years.
It would be easy to write off Waynick as a Harold Hill. But the hand he uses to shake mine as I walk out the door at Alcor features a silver bracelet. It looks just like a medical alert bracelet, except that instead of including information on allergies and health problems, it’s meant to tell EMTs to call Alcor if Waynick is about to breathe his last. He’s not just president of Alcor, he’s also a client. When he moved to Phoenix in 1997, he spent years siphoning off time from executive positions at American Express to work at Alcor for free. He just wanted to be a part of the miracle in the desert that all the history books would someday write about. He only started receiving a salary when he was named president in 2004. When they sign up with Alcor, clients must decide in advance how badly damaged they must be before they think preservation is not worth the cost. Waynick, for one, has his mind made up: “If there’s enough of me to scrape together and put me in a thimble, I want you to take it and I want you to freeze it.” Waynick, as it turn out, is the rarest of all salesmen – a true believer.
It was raining when I left Alcor, part of the daily summertime storms my cab driver only half-jokingly called “the monsoon season.” The sun squeezed its way through the clouds at each crack, checkering the parched moonscape below. It’s the kind of weather that makes you thrilled to be alive. But while I’ve never seen more breathtaking storms than the ones in Arizona, I’ve also never seen ones more ephemeral. Within minutes, the clouds are gone. The parched desert has swallowed up most of the rain, and a scorching sun will soon remove any trace of it from streets and rooftops. In a blink, it’s like the whole thing never happened.
When I tell my driver where I’ve been, he is suddenly all questions. What kind of people want this sort of thing? How much does it cost? How about pets? What happens if the power goes out? We’re both laughing at frozen dogs and severed heads. But it feels like he’s testing me, hoping I’ll give away some glimmer of suspicion that it actually might work. I realize that something is also holding me back from relishing the sheer ridiculousness of it all.
There is little to envy in the death of Richard C. Jones. His immune system weakened beyond repair, he was hospitalized with a combination of pneumonia, cytomegalovirus, and a liver infection. He was eventually released, only to immediately return with toxoplasmosis gondii, a parasite of the brain. The infection wrecked his mind, leaving him hazy, confused, and irrational for the last 12 weeks of his life. It was about as bad a death as I can imagine – painful, long, and undignified. But Jones went into the great beyond confident that someday science would know how to cure his AIDS. Perhaps centuries later, they would find a way around the fact that he had been deep-frozen and was pumped full of toxins, that his organs were fractured and his cells had popped. Maybe what gives me pause while laughing at Alcor is how charmingly optimistic and hopeful about the future the whole thing is. Or maybe it’s just the nagging worry that, long after I and all the other skeptics have cashed in our chips, Dick Jones may just come back to pick up his Emmy.