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Obama Futurama

Could the nation’s new ‘hope’ mantra help the business of preserving bodies? One Scottsdale-based cryonics organization is banking on it.

BY JIMMY MAGAHERN

Published by: Phoenix Magazine, April 2009


“Hope” – that single word emblazoned on all those iconic stenciled posters of Barack Obama in 2008 – has become the ad world’s favorite buzzword in 2009.

Iconic brands such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Ikea have gotten in on the game with some variation of the “Hope” slogan in ad campaigns.

Perhaps soon we’ll see red, white and blue “Hope For Change” logos wrapped around the giant insulated containers that Scottsdale-based cryonics organization Alcor uses to store its cryopreserved human bodies.

Certainly the message fits the elusive commodity that the organization has been banking on since its formation in 1972. After all, nobody has embraced hope for the future more literally than the 84 patients and 872 living members who have elected to spend $150,000 to have their bodies scientifically preserved at the company’s Scottsdale Airpark facility. Not only are cryonicists betting on a brighter society that will someday be able to restore their bodies to full health, they’re also counting on a future simply worth coming back to.

“We’ve always been into hope,” says Regina Pancake, the company’s readiness coordinator, a position that entails transferring patients into precious cargo containers within minutes of their being declared legally dead, thus avoiding cell damage should they eventually be revived.

“To be a cryonicist, you have to be an optimist,” she explains. “You have to really think that we’re going to pull it together and make it as a society and become a technologically advanced one at that. You have to be able to embrace the future rather than running from it.”

Pancake, 47, a wry redhead with a sharp sense of humor that would be right at home on The Daily Show, came to Alcor from a Hollywood job as a props specialist in science fiction movies. Her 14 years in that field attuned her to the ways in which society’s vision of the future is largely shaped by popular sci-fi.

“The future, in movies, has always been very dystopian,” she says, rattling off a list of films – from Woody Allen’s Sleeper to Aliens to even Planet of the Apes – in which cryonics, typically misrepresented as “freezing” a body (they’re actually preserved today in non-freezing liquid nitrogen), fast-forwards its heroes into a dismal future.

“Offhand, I can’t think of any movie or TV show where cryonics delivers the characters to a better place and time,” she says. “Well, maybe Futurama,” she adds with a chuckle, referring to the Simpsons-like TV show.

But now, our collective vision of the future may be brightening in favor of cryogenics, says Richard Leis, an operations specialist for University of Arizona’s HiRISE Mars Orbiter imaging center. He signed up for cryonic suspension at Alcor a little more than a year ago.

“That line in Obama’s inaugural speech, about ‘restor(ing) science to its rightful place and wield(ing) technology’s wonders to raise healthcare’s quality,’ was emailed all through the cryonics community,” he says. “But people are already coming around on their own. When you’re seeing the world transformed by emerging technologies, I think people naturally become more optimistic about those technologies actually working to eliminate diseases, and maybe providing a way to slow aging and even death.”

Leis funds his cryopreservation fee with a 20-year term life insurance policy that the 35-year-old says costs him less than $25 per month – a popular route for younger sign-ups. To preserve itself in the long run, Alcor set up the interest-earning Alcor Patient Care Trust in 1997 to supplement the revenue derived from membership fees and donations. The trust puts roughly $65,000 from each registration into the shared fund, which now holds assets of more than $3.5 million.

“It’s all a gamble,” Pancake admits. “Who knows? A giant comet could wipe out the Earth, and then it’s ‘game over’ for everybody.”

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Illustration by Dan Page

“We’ve always been into hope,” says Regina Pancake, "readiness coordinator" at Alcor.