Monday, December 1, 2014

The Art of Not Dying


Given the ubiquity of the phenomenon known as death, it is no surprise that people throughout the ages have gone to great lengths not only to describe it, but also to prescribe the proper way to approach it. This was the impetus behind a host of ancient funerary texts, including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Bardo Thodol, and the lesser known Ars Moriendi, a medieval Christian book whose Latin title translates to "the Art of Dying Well." 

If a philosopher were to attempt a guide to dying and the afterlife now—that is to say, in an age when death is increasingly described in some futurist circles more as a terminal illness than as the finality of finalities—where would he or she begin? To answer this question, I decided to go on a search for modernity’s antidote to death. That quest brought me to a non-descript building tucked away in a light-industrial area in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The building belongs to Alcor Life Extension Foundation, and behind the several inches of Kevlar and reinforced concrete that make up its walls, Alcor is home to 129 patients who are cryopreserved in vats of liquid nitrogen, waiting for the day when technology has advanced to the point that they can be revived to roam the Earth once more.


Alcor froze its first "patient," as it calls its customers, in 1976; there are currently 1005 people signed up to be preserved by the company when they die. They pay an annual fee of about $770, and then, at the time of death, $80,000 to preserve just the brain and up to $200,000 to do the whole body. There are teenage members of Alcor waiting to be frozen, in some cases with their dogs; there is said to be a growing customer base in China. Perhaps the most famous Alcor patient is Ted Williams, baseball Hall of Famer, whose head is kept in one of its smaller vats. (Allegations about the abuse of his head were at the center of a 2009 tabloid-friendly book that has since been discredited as full of fabrications).

The door to the facility was unlocked for me by Dr. Max More, a futurist and philosopher who since 2011 has served as Alcor’s CEO. More looks like the sort of guy who could snap you in half without much effort, but despite appearances he’s gentle. He is careful with his words and when he does vocalize his thoughts, they are layered in a mild British accent, the product of his upbringing in Bristol and education at Oxford. 

Max founded the first biostasis organization in Europe, called Mizar Limited, and launched what would eventually become the Extropy Institute in 1988 before moving to the United States where he taught philosophy and completed his dissertation at the University of Southern California. He married his wife, Dr. Natasha Vita, who is another notable figure in the field of transhumanism, in 1996 and eventually moved to Austin, Texas in 2002. After a tour of the facility, Max and I sat down to talk about the art of dying in a future without death and how the business of raising the dead is going.

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