To date, 26 people have been cryonically suspended--frozen for the future--in the United States.
As it happens, 24 of them are in California, where the urge to live forever is beginning to look like a serious business.
The numbers are still tiny. And cryonics, an ad hoc science that was born with the icy suspension of a Glendale physician in 1967, still faces some daunting questions about its practicality and legal status.
After 23 years on the fringe, however, cryonics is clearly evolving from cult phenomenon into California's latest--and perhaps most troubled--growth industry.
Membership in cryonics societies is rising sharply, thanks partly to publicity from a cryonics-related homicide investigation in Riverside three years ago and from the more recent request by a Silicon Valley mathematician to be frozen before his death. (Cryonicists hope to preserve themselves until science can find a way to revive them.)
At Riverside's Alcor Foundation, for instance, membership has tripled to 590 since 1987. "1990 has blown us away. . . . If we keep going at anywhere near this rate, things are going to change radically around here," says Alcor President Carlos Mondragon.
The sign-up boom--and the prospect that some groups will receive multimillion-dollar inheritances as the first generation of aging cryonics advocates begins to die--has sparked entrepreneurial vigor, as well as new problems, in the field that itself nearly expired in 1976. That's when the Cryonics Society of California suffered financial collapse and several bodies were allowed to thaw.
Some new-wave cryonicists are unabashedly commercializing their activities in the belief that cryonics, like the biotechnology and computer industries, will achieve key technological breakthroughs only when big investors begin to smell profit in it.
"Once people found out you could make money using genetic technology, the thing just steamrolled. . . . Now, the commercialization of cryonics is occurring. The companies are beginning to amass respectable capital," says Paul Segall, a Berkeley-based medical researcher.
Last year, he helped found Cryomedical Sciences Inc., a publicly traded company that is seeking medical applications for organ-freezing techniques developed by cryonics enthusiasts like himself.
Others are grappling with some weird questions of personal finance that arise when, largely outside conventional legal structures, you try to take your money with you. "If you think (cryonics) might work, the question is not only will you be restored in the future, but will you have any resources at that time," explains 51-year-old cryonics activist Saul Kent. In 1987, Kent became embroiled in a homicide investigation after his mother Dora's head was frozen--the preferred term for heads-only preservation is "neurosuspension"--and the Riverside County coroner determined that her body was suffused with a lethal dose of barbiturate.
(It is cheaper to preserve just a head, and some cryonicists believe it advantageous, since they expect science to devise new bodies by cloning or another technique in the future.)
Officials of Alcor, which performed the suspension, maintained that the drug was administered after death, and the investigation was eventually suspended.
Kent, who acknowledges that the resulting publicity boosted Alcor's membership, is now preoccupied with developing IRAs: individual reanimation accounts. They promise investors fanciful returns (see chart) in 100 years or more on money that will be moved, through a Liechtenstein foundation, to a Swiss bank. And they are only the latest twist in a business that is virtually unregulated because authorities have been reluctant to put an implied stamp of approval on what may prove to be just a silly attempt to cheat death.
In fact, cryonics has been in legal limbo since state health officers two years ago stopped issuing death certificates for frozen corpses and asked the district attorney in Riverside to prosecute Alcor for disposing of human remains without a license. Alcor sued the state health department and has continued to perform suspensions--arguing that it would seek a cryonics license if any state agency offered one. Meanwhile, prosecutors have withheld action pending a decision on the matter from a Los Angeles Superior Court judge later this month.
"There's a hole in the law," concedes California Deputy Atty. Gen. Y. Tammy Chung, who is handling the state's defense against the Alcor suit.
Though generally wary of authority, cryonicists have often been even warier of each other since the 1976 meltdown, known among initiates as the "Chatsworth incident."
In the midst of a financial debacle, four bodies maintained at a Chatsworth storage facility were allowed to thaw, and a Los Angeles jury eventually entered a $1-million fraud award against CSC and its companion Cryonic Interment Inc., both now defunct.