A Cautionary Tale and a Point of Principle

Cryonics is important, and will become increasingly important if progress towards engineering longevity remains slow. Cryopreservation remains the only viable option that grants even a chance at greater longevity for those folk unlucky enough to die before the advent of radical life extension technologies. Which may include all of us, you never know. Worse has happened.

However, the present legal structures and resulting incentives surrounding death and the provision of end of life services are such that organizing a cryopreservation is anything but easy or certain. Too many people involved in the process have the ability to interfere in what is a very important personal decision. So you end up with the case of someone forbidden to cryopreserve himself before his brain is consumed by a tumor, or relatives who step in to ensure that the potential preservee's wishes are not respected:

An Arizona foundation is asking a court to disinter a Burlington man who died in February so his remains can be preserved through a low-temperature process known of cryonic suspension. Alcor Life Extension Foundation of Scottsdale, Ariz., wants to dig up the remains of 81-year-old Orville Martin Richardson. The foundation says in a lawsuit that Richardson paid more than $50,000 in 2004 for membership in the group and wrote in his will that he wanted his body delivered to the organization.

"I further direct that, when and where possible, such delivery shall take place immediately after my legal death, without embalming or autopsy," Richardson wrote. He also gave Alcor full custody of his remains "for the purpose of placing them into cryonic suspension."

Attorneys for Alcor contend that Richardson's brother and sister denied the foundation's request for his body and didn't notify them of their brother's death until months after he was buried.

I can only imagine that the lawsuit is being undertaken as a point of principle and for the purposes of education: don't break contracts with Alcor or this will happen. After a few months of burial, I don't see that there will be anything left to preserve of the fine structure of the brain - it's too late for this poor fellow. Frankly, the behavior of the family looks pretty reprehensible if you want to go by the sparse details of the article (with the normal caveat of believing what journalists write only so far as you can throw it). Switching around a family member's post-mortem arrangements is little different from bullying and controlling folk who are too old and frail to defend themselves. In the case of acting to prevent cryopreservation that was organized and chosen by the deceased, it becomes something like fractional murder: removing that person's shot at whatever the unknown probability of future revival happens to be.

This should serve as yet another cautionary tale for the rest of us. Thanks to government regulation you aren't permitted to organize your own cryopreservation under favourable terms prior to natural death. This is for all the same non-reasons that it remains largely illegal to provide assisted suicide services. (Who was it owns your life and body again? You? Not so much if you can't even decide the terms under which you'd like to end your life and dispose of your remains). You must wait for clinical death, and therefore be forced into frailty beforehand and relying on others to see the preservation through afterwards. Not to mention the suffering and cost of medical services that might otherwise have been avoided. Roll in the fact that death is all too often unexpected, this all leaves the completion of your wishes a matter of trust.

So cryopreservation is harder than it has to be, largely thanks to all these issues of law and interference in personal choice. The lesson to learn from this is that a successful end of life transition into low temperature storage requires better preparation than perhaps you were putting into it to date.


I think Alcor is doing the right thing with their lawsuit. My experience is that people who are less interested or hostile to stuff like life-extension and transhumanism tend to be driven more by socio-biological impulses. If Alcor's lawsuit is successful, it will send a very powerful socio-biological message to the brother and sister, as well as the rest of the world, of "do not fuck with us or you will suffer". This is precisely the kind of behavioral conditioning that works on non-transhumanist, non-intellectual people.

Posted by: kurt9 at June 10th, 2009 10:11 AM
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