Of the many questions we face when dealing with the death of a loved one, burial can be one of the trickiest. Having just recently lost his father, Thomas Mira y Lopez approaches this issue in a work that blends memoir, history, and journalism. In this excerpt, he travels to a cryogenics center outside of Scottsdale, Arizona, seeking answers for how we cope with loss, love, and memory.
The conference room waited at the end of the hall. A long table stretched in the middle, desk chairs around it. Tinted windows looked out on the parking lot. To our right, a metal shutter was cut into the wall. This looked into the patient bay area. “Step on over,” Diane beckoned. “Let’s have a peek.” She flipped a lever and the shutter cranked up.
We peered through the window on to a row of shining aluminum tanks extending from floor to ceiling, wide enough that all five of us would need to link arms to encircle one. They looked like the tanks you’d find on a tour of a brewery and, although they were behind glass, it was hard not to think about how much more accessible, how less guarded, these were than Alcor members’ underground boxes of stuff. These were the dewars, and inside were the bodies.
Cryonauts are preserved at a temperature of -196 degrees Celsius. Diane pointed to the hoses attached to the tops of each container—these pumped a steady supply of liquid nitrogen to ensure the bodies stayed cool. Alcor keeps four bodies in a dewar at a time, each stored vertically in its own quadrant of space. The staff took the newly preserved body outside and then lowered it headfirst by crane from the roof into its open dewar.
“Head first?” The woman from Scottsdale curdled her lip, speaking for the first time. I was unsure why this detail offended her. “It’s a preventative measure,” Diane explained. “We don’t anticipate it, but if we run out of liquid nitrogen, levels would decrease from the top down. So the first part of the body to be exposed would be the feet, instead of the head. And you don’t want to lose your noggin.”
“If there’s a natural disaster,” Diane assured us, “these dewars can run six to eight months on their own. They use almost no electricity, and the glass window that looks on to them is bulletproof.” Alcor had hitched up a state-of-the-art alarm system throughout. “There are a lot of people out there who don’t like cryonics or what we do,” Diane explained, and nodded to the shatterproof window. “We have enough defenses here to withstand a full-fledged assault long enough for the police to arrive. We can’t repel it, but we can survive it.” She shook her head. “People want us to fail. One patient, his wife never even called to tell us he had died. She waited until it was too late. Think of that—his whole life’s work, gone.” Whether or not any imminent threat loomed, there’s a rationale to the building’s bunker-type mentality. It isn’t just the body, but the structure and its containers that need preservation. Alcor relocated to Scottsdale from its original location outside San Francisco because it was looking for somewhere less likely to be hit by earthquakes and other environmental disasters over a long period of time.
Diane motioned us over to the conference table. A miniature dewar stood on it. It was a 3D printout, the handiwork of an employee who builds 3D printers on the side. “Go ahead and check it out,” she smiled. Bree opened it. Inside were the different containers for the bodies and, in the center, sat what looked like a Pez dispenser. “What’s this?” Bree asked, pulling it out. “Oh, that,” Diane said offhandedly. “That’s where we keep the neuros.” Alcor keeps up to six heads in one dewar. Each is zipped up in a bag, then placed inside a tin bucket and stuck in its allotted slot on the vertical bar. Diane blinked. “Think of it like a totem pole.”
Excerpted from The Book of Resting Places: A Personal History of Where We Lay the Dead by Thomas Mira y Lopez. Courtesy of Counterpoint Press and copyright of the author. All rights reserved.