Finally Signed Up for Cryopreservation: the Existence of a Fallback Plan is Great, but Only if You Actually Take Advantage of It

As regular readers will know, I've long considered the cryonics industry to be a sensible, necessary undertaking in an uncertain world. For those of us interested in longevity, the primary plan is to accelerate development of rejuvenation therapies to the point at which we can achieve actuarial escape velocity: that we'll benefit somewhat from the first generation of therapies, and thus survive long enough to benefit from the second, much better generation of therapies, and so on, until aging is comprehensively defeated and our remaining healthy, youthful, vigorous lifespans become indefinite in length. It is almost certainly the case that some people alive today will achieve that goal. The open question is whether or not that group includes you and I, and that isn't something that can be predicted at the present early stage of development, in which the first true rejuvenation therapies, capable of repairing the cell and tissue damage that causes aging, are not even in the clinics yet.

Uncertainty is one of the reasons why advocacy and fundraising is so important. It is also the reason why a backup plan is a good thing to have. The only viable backup plan for the foreseeable future is cryopreservation, which is to say the low-temperature storage of the brain following clinical death in the hope of future restoration. The evidence is good for vitrification of brain tissue to preserve the fine structure of tissue that encodes the mind, and while the process in practice can always be improved in quality and organization, the (currently unknown) odds of survival following cryopreservation are infinitely higher than those attending any other end of life choice. After the grave there is only oblivion, but for so long as the data of the mind is preserved, there is hope that sufficiently advanced medical nanotechnology will one day bring you back.

I have put off signing up for cryopreservation for a decade or so. This isn't uncommon; after all, it involves paperwork, adult responsibility, planning ahead, thinking about unpleasant events, and all that. People put off many other things for these and similar reasons. Writing wills, buying houses, getting married, starting companies, and so on. That doleful feeling of some unknown scope of paperwork that will have to be accomplished in the event that you do get your act together and set forth to be a responsible adult is ever a strong deterrent. Still, sooner or later all these tasks have to be carried out, and while no-one enjoys wading through legal documents, it is never as bad as you think it is going to be. If you are unfamiliar with the process of signing up for cryonics organization membership and cryopreservation, let me tell you that it is much less work than buying a house. It is about two and half times the work of getting a life insurance policy, if that helps calibrate things any better. Typically, it runs as follows:

1) Contact one of the established cryonics providers (Alcor or the Cryonics Institute in the continental US) and ask to join. They will send you a raft of paperwork typical of membership organizations, but since it involves the highly regulated area of end of life decisions you will have to have some of the documents witnessed and notarized. You are signing up to pay a monthly fee to help keep the lights on, and to donate your remains to the provider on death, but this is all provisional pending organization of payment.

2) Obtain life insurance to pay for your eventual cryopreservation. This is where you will want advice, as there are only a few life insurance companies that have experience with this sort of thing. I recommend chatting to Rudi Hoffman, who has acted as an insurance agent for for scores of people in the cryonics community. Paying for cryopreservation with life insurance involves establishing a policy that will pay out to the cryonics organization on death rather than to the more usual parties, such as family members. The matter of how large a policy to purchase is an interesting question, and I encourage you to read an earlier post that walks through that topic. The short of it is that more is generally better, as the future is uncertain. Life insurance companies will want to pick through your medical records, will send a nurse to check your vital signs, and will usually find some reason to charge a little more than the early, optimistic quote that was given sight unseen.

3) Then you wait for paperwork to cross the country back and forth, as everyone involved between you, the cryonics provider, the insurance agent, and the insurer has to sign everything. It might take a month or two, depending on how many of the end points are comfortable with electronic document exchange, but there is usually a lot of back and forth required. There is always time to stop and think about any particular choice.

4) With membership and contracts in hand, you should take care of a few other supporting legal documents. This means making a will that determinedly and in no uncertain terms states your wish to be cryopreserved, and just as importantly establishing what is known as a living will or advance healthcare directive, a declaration of who you want to have power of attorney in the case of your incapacity, and what actions they should take. That should obviously be someone you trust to ensure that you are cryopreserved, and who for preference has absolute no financial interest in the outcome one way or another. Because the contents of the will and living will are somewhat non-standard, you will probably have to make use of an actual living, breathing attorney rather than one of the very helpful standardized form legal services that have sprung up of late.

There are cautionary tales in the cryonics community regarding people who trusted their immediate family to ensure that they were cryopreserved, and those family members then sabotaged the arrangements in order to access the life insurance funds. This has happened on numerous occasions. Much as I might sound a misanthrope to say this, the best assumption to keep in mind when setting up the legal aspects of your cryopreservation is this: when on your deathbed, everyone not employed by the cryopreservation organization is a potential adversary, interested in the funds that they might be able to obtain for themselves at the cost of your survival. It doesn't matter how well you know people today, or the nature of your relationships with them. Cryopreservation is (hopefully) decades in your future, half a lifetime or more away: people change, and people who don't even exist today will be involved in your end of life care, having legally meaningful ties to you by kinship. Fortunately, it is possible to arrange matters to make it very hard for even family members to sabotage your arrangements, and most of these approaches are well documented by the cryonics providers.

For example, firstly you should ensure that no-one in your family is even named in the life insurance policy you are buying. It should pay out to the cryonics organization, and you might pick an entirely unrelated charity to benefit should you be unfortunate enough to die in a way that prevents your cryopreservation - thus the incentives align for the cryonics provider to try their best, as they get nothing if they fail, and your family has no interest in the outcome either way. Secondly, persuade as many close family members as possible to sign and have witnessed affidavits of support for your cryopreservation. Third, structure your will and living will to ensure that there are material incentives for your family in the event that you are successfully cryopreserved, and there are no material incentives for any of them to block that outcome. Fourth, record your determination to be cryopreserved, both in your will and in other media, and keep that reasonably up to date. Lastly for this list there is the matter of avoiding the unwanted attention of the state in the form of autopsy or other delays after death. The best methods here vary by jurisdiction, but in some states registering a religious objection can work well.

The best way to keep everyone on your side in the matter of cryonics is to ensure that all of the incentives align with the outcome of a successful cryopreservation, should it come to that. The moment that someone can benefit by making it hard to achieve that goal - that is when the problems start. Relying on the essential goodness of human nature has never been terribly effective when it comes to expecting people to follow through with something that they themselves do not support, or think is frivolous, or which requires them to sacrifice their own gain. If you are in the room and exerting your will, that is one story, but when you are gone, it is quite another.