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.
Once frozen, maintenance is simply a matter of topping off storage tanks with liquid nitrogen, a 30-cents-per-liter commodity that boils off from each container at a rate of about 11 liters per day. This means it doesn't matter if an earthquake knocks out the electricity. Bodies are stored upside-down so heads will stay submerged if there's ever a bad leak.
Freezing creates its own problems. At the temperature of liquid nitrogen body tissue develops severe cracks.
Cryonicists readily acknowledge this, but explain it away with theassumption that guides their optimism in the face of all obstacles, namely: By the time technology is advanced enough to revive frozen bodies, it will also be able to repair damaged cells. This also explains why some people have only their heads frozen. They figure science will be able to grow them a new body.
Alcor is the only cryonics center still offering the head-only option. Art Quaife, president of Trans Time Inc., the Oakland cryonics center with 11 frozen patients, said, "There's just too much loss of identity. It's not on the menu [here] anymore."
This is only one of several points of contention between the three cryonics centers. The competitors generally don't like talking about each other, and when they do they tend to carp.
Mr. Ettinger, associated with the center in Oak Park, Mich., also with 11 patients, says the two California sites charge too much -- Trans Time, a for-profit company, charges $130,000, which is $10,000 more than the non-profit Alcor. Oak Park will freeze you for $28,000.
You get what you pay for, Mr. Whelan says.
"They do almost nothing in the way of preparing their members [for freezing]," Mr. Whelan says of the Oak Park center. "We spend over $20,000 on the surgical procedures that we're doing . . . They also have no kind of transport capability. When one of their members dies, it's up to that dead member to get to their facility somehow."
Alcor's big price tag is needed to generate money for long-term financial survival, he maintains. Annual salaries at Alcor are small, he added, averaging $12,000 for seven full-time employees, and most of the income goes to the Patient Care Trust Fund, now at $2.1 million. It will someday pay for revival costs, and, if there's anything left, for job training and initial living expenses.
Mr. Whelan said it's also necessary to get all the money up front atthe time of death (usually through a life insurance policy signed over to Alcor in advance). He explained that relatives of the deceased "tend to lose interest in paying for old frozen Uncle Ed after eight or nine years go by."
Alcor is easily the fastest-growing of the three, although each is scouting for a new, bigger location. And all share the central belief of cryonics -- that some day they'll have the last laugh on all the long-gone stiffs who now make fun of them.
Touring a place like Alcor can be unnerving, knowing that all those bodies and heads are floating around. But Mr. Whelan takes comfort from the realization.
When he first went to work at Alcor he used to stroll into the patient care bay first thing every morning to ponder the wonder of it all, although after a while even frozen people become old hat.
"But the bottom line is I still think about it every day," he said. "I think about the fact that I might be in there someday. And the overwhelming feeling is one of optimism, because it's my opinion that we're going to make it, and these people are going to be coming out into a much better world."