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Frozen heads and euthanasia at Alcor

What is death? It is a question that seems so simple yet so complex. It is a question that we tend to think that we know. Once a person stops breathing and their brain stops functioning, they are dead. Apparently, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, Inc., a cryonics laboratory founded in 1972 in Scottsdale, Ariz., has different ideas.

What exactly does Alcor do? They freeze human bodies in hopes that one day technology will come along and allow us to bring these humans back to life. That sounds interesting on paper. We all wish we could live on and on. However, in this day and age, this is not yet possible. To add to that, Alcor does not exactly have a glowing reputation.

In the past decade, you have probably heard of Alcor. Yes, the same Alcor that hosts a legendary baseball player, who was the last man to hit .400 in a single season, as one of its more famous residents. When Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox legend and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer, passed away on July 5, 2002, a debate ensued over if Williams would receive a traditional burial or if he would be frozen at Alcor. The latter was allegedly the idea of Williams’ son, John Henry Williams.

In the end, Williams’ body was frozen at Alcor. This is where the case gets murky. Besides the question of whether Williams truly wanted to be frozen in a laboratory upon the hour of his death, there is the ethical manner in which Alcor operates.

According to Associated Press reports from ABC News, with the source being the New York Daily News, and CBS, there were several ghastly methods that Alcor used. The reason why the company is finding itself back in the public eye is that Larry Johnson, a former chief operating officer at Alcor, is releasing a book detailing the gruesome behind-the-scenes action. Is Johnson just trying to hype up his book? Who knows? However, there seems to be something fishy about Alcor.

In the reports mentioned above, it is stated that Williams’ head was severed and put into a capsule. The severed heads of victims are put onto tuna cans. In order to move the heads, the can must be knocked off of the head. Johnson stated in his book that a technician trying to knock the can off of Williams’ head, in 2002, missed and struck Williams’ head with his swing. This may explain the reports a couple of years ago where it was said that Williams’ head had cracks in it.

An even more brutal method used, as reported by Johnson, lies in the death of two of Alcor’s clients. On these two occasions, Johnson states, Alcor employees waited outside of the home and waited for the death of the client. When these clients did not die quick enough, their death process was sped up by an injection of some chemical. That is too disturbing to really comment on. Unless there was a legal contract permitting euthanasia, this is straight-up murder.

While doing some research for this story, I decided to check out Alcor’s homepage at Alcor.org. On their front page, they have several subheadings with little descriptions that essentially list what Alcor is about. One line caught my eye in particular under the heading of “Cryonics and Religion.”

This line reads, “The purpose of cryonics is to maintain life, not reverse death.” Technically, yes, it is possible to have a few brain waves still firing after you are physically dead. Alcor tries to freeze their patients at -321 degrees as quickly as they can after they die. However, the patient is also technically dead. They are not actively thinking and their heart isn’t beating.

Therefore, the above statement is not entirely true. What life are you trying to maintain? The person is technically dead so in order to maintain life, you need to reverse death.

This case is what sparks the “what is dead?” debate. Is a person technically alive or technically dead in this case? The answers are not clear cut. We know where Alcor stands on this.

However, in the case of Mr. Williams, it is even weirder. How are they going to restore him? Does he have any frozen brain waves? Logically, I would not think so. His head was severed from his body. His head is not attached to anything. How do they expect to bring him back to life? In order to do so would require a Dr. Frankenstein operation, which is scary to think about.

So we are left with the question, again, of what is death? Do we really know? Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. I am sure that Alcor, despite their grand talk, has no idea either.

In my eyes, Alcor is a scary company. Why don’t we wait and see if we can expand living human life instead of playing with dead people like we are living in some sort of science fiction movie? That makes more sense to me. It’s not as ethically creepy.

Matt Kushi is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at mkushi@student.umass.edu.

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