Reason Writers Around Town: Kerry Howley on "Until Cryonics Do We Part" in The NY Times Magazine


Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Contributing Editor Kerry Howley reports on cryonics and marriage:

It has not escaped the members of the often sappily life-affirming cryonics community that their practice, so often thought to be the province of either misfit loners or rugged individualists, involves great faith in the competent benevolence of other people. Nor is Robin Hanson blind to the extent to which he depends on his tribe. Marriage, despite its lack of clean edges and predictable outcomes, is one of the few institutions he seems to have no interest in reforming. Peggy describes their conflict as akin to a deep religious difference, bridgeable by some core shared belief. "Robin and I have been together for 28 years," Peggy says. "We've always loved spending time together. He is an excellent father. He devotes an enormous amount of time and energy to family life. And that has to be there."

Robin and Peggy remain silent on the issue of how, exactly, death will part them, but earlier this year a stray bit of chatter glanced past the conversational barricade. Sitting at their kitchen table, Peggy told Robin about a funeral tradition she'd heard about: after a cremation, the ashes of the dead are separated among family members. The children and surviving spouse each get a handful, to save or dispose of as they see fit.

"You're not getting any part of me," Robin said. "I'm being frozen."

"No." Peggy said. "Your head is being frozen. I get the rest of you."

Read the whole thing here.

Howley's Reason archive.

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  1. Peggy’s devotion to whisking the dying out of this world on her terms seems to border on militant. It’s as though death is her profession and she doesn’t like her husband charting a path that skirts what her experience tells her is acceptable.

    I wonder how many of the other marriages reportedly strained by cryonics is similar to that caused by Peggy’s mindset or the hurt feelings of one spouse leading an extended life without the other, and how many are actually bedeviled by that most pedestrian of marital woes; the finances involved. Cryonic storage can’t be cheap.

    1. Most of the hostility I’ve personally encountered stemmed from an inability to distinguish between indefinite lifespan and immortality. Those with strong feelings that immortality was morally or pragmatically wrong have rejected all hypothetical technologies that would provide an indefinite span while accepting more common life extension strategies. It usually came down to something like, “I think it’s wrong to live forever. You wouldn’t try to live forever if you really cared about me.” Apparently they can’t undertand that asking others to give up crogenics is on par with asking them to follow directly into the grave. It’s a small sample size though. In depth discussions with no more than half a dozen of these individuals, so I don’t know how typical my experience is.

      1. an inability to distinguish between indefinite lifespan and immortality.

        Practically speaking, what is the difference between the two? In both cases the inevitability of death is removed (except in contrived cases of the heat-death of the universe, the extinction of the human race, etc) and that’s probably what people object to about immortality.

        1. True immortality would preclude the option of death. Those who’ve argued with me usually try persuading me with, “but won’t you get bored eventually?” They fail to acknowledge that I could still destroy myself if existence were to become unbearable.

          1. So, the two options are virtual immortality and suicide. Can’t you see why people would have problems with both of those things?

            1. Like other life-extension technologies, cryonic preservation is merely an attempt to postpone suicice/death. It isn’t equivalent to immortality. So if people don’t like the dual options of death and immortality, they should have nothing against a middle ground decision of postponement. Unfortunately many people cannot understand the difference betweening choosing postponement and choosing true immortality. That was precisely my point.

              If someone pulls a gun and shoots me, and I decide I’m not ready to die just yet so I call 911, hardly anyone calls me selfish or accuses me of trying to become godlike. If nature pulls a gun and I come down with cancer, I might yet again decline to just lay down and die. I might seek out chemo and radiation therapies. Again, most people have no issue with this. But if nature pulls a gun of a different caliber and stops my heart I suddenly become a monster for telling it I’m still not ready to die. If I want to freeze myself in the hope that I can be revived, which is morally equivalent to administering first aid in an ambulance in the hope that it will allow the hospital to heal some traumatic injury, suddenly I am met with resistance. I am told I am wrong THIS TIME. I should give up and die, THIS TIME.

              The advocates of cryonic preservation are not the ones trying to force a choice between the options of immortality and suicide. It is the detractors that do so.

              (I’m aware you qualified immortality with “virtual”, which I ignored in my response. I do this because qualified immortality is NOT immortality. Immortality is an absolute.)

      2. That’s a contender for most incomprehensible post of the week.

        1. That’s what happens when I try to type sober. Tell me which part’s the least lucid while I polish off the bushmills and I’ll have another go.

          1. you’ll be any happier the second time around.

  2. “Your head is being frozen. I get the rest of you.”

    I claim the liver.

    1. Is anyone else as disturbed as me that they separate the head from the body to freeze it? Do they have a guillotine or something? A chainsaw?

      Who interviews for a job where one of the requirements is chopping someone’s head off (even if said person died a few minutes ago)?

      1. “Cephalic Isolation

        Surgery for cephalic isolation was begun at approximately
        17:12 by making a circumferential incision at the base of the
        neck at just above the level of the clavicle using a Black and
        Decker Slim-Grip (Catalog # EK200, Type 1) Electric Carving
        Knife. The Electric Knife was used to incise the cervical skin,
        musculature, and other structures down to approximately the 5th
        or 6th cervical vertebrae. The vertebral column was then cut
        with a Satterlee amputation saw, freeing the head from the body.”

        More details available here:

        Note that’s a case report from 1994, so perhaps current methods are different.

        1. Now they just use a strong guy and a garrote.

      2. Who interviews for a job where one of the requirements is chopping someone’s head off (even if said person died a few minutes ago)?

        Given the current job market…

    2. Surprised you like them that well done.

  3. A) Hanson’s paper with Tyler Cowen on the dishonesty of disagreement is not-wrong, and probably of interest to comments-reading types. Hier. Ist PDF.

    2) The Times-parable-about-people-on-your-friends-list genre is ass.

  4. OK that looks like its gonna be fun.


  5. I want to be frozen so my brain can hold a grudge against LeBron James for all eternity.

    1. Impostor! A true Clevelander can hold a grudge without a body. Not having a brain is a requirement for staying there. Exception: Drew Carey.

  6. People are absolutely retarded about death. You’re dead; who cares what happens to the body. Burn it and throw the ashes to the wind. Bury it in a hole. Throw it on the trash heap and let the animals have at it. They’re fucking dead; the meat container is irrelevant.

    Trust me, a dead body is very fucking dead. You will get no solace from one.

    1. It’s clear this is written by someone in their 20s.

      Not saying that you’re wrong, but I imagine it gets much harder to have such a flippant attitude toward it when you’re expecting it to come any day. They let you have your delusions of immortality, so let them have their delusions of meaning after death.

      1. It’s so delicious watching you speak to something you know nothing about. Have you ever felt the cold, lifeless body of someone you care about lying on the slab? Clearly not, because if you had, you would know how absolutely dead it is, and how utterly foreign it is to what it was in life. It’s a meat casing, nothing more. Once the person is gone, there is absolutely nothing to be gained from the body.

        But hey, you keep pretending to know what you’re talking about. It’s what you do.

        1. How dare you not accept your scolding. One day you’ll grow up, young man, and learn how to be scolded.

          1. All I can hear now is Tulpa saying “Scold me! Scold me harder!”

          2. I believe the correct line is “one day you’ll grow up and THANK ME.” In Epi’s case, I’m dubious of both.

        2. Well, I actually agree with you about the nature of a dead body, and if you’re able to hold on to that dispassionate outlook all the way to the end, you’re to be commended. I’m not placing any bets on my own consistency on the subject when my own death approaches. While the experience of a loved one’s dead body is certainly a jarring thing, I doubt it compares to the anticipation of one’s own death. As human existence at every age is an exercise in rationalization, it’s to be expected that there is a lot of rationalization going on among the elderly about death.

          Might I add that you’re in an extremely poor position to be scolding me for presumption when the first sentence of your post calls nearly everyone in the world “retarded” about death. Just as I’m not aware of your personal history, you’re not aware of theirs. And there are plenty of things about anyone’s life decisions, including yours, that other people could justly call “retarded”, so it would be wise to be forgiving of other people’s comforting delusions.

          1. Why? “Comforting delusions” are, in your own words, delusions. There’s nothing rational or intelligent about them. If that’s not retarded, what is it?

            1. The only people who don’t have delusions are sociopaths and suicides.

      2. To quote David Cross, “When I die, just give my dead corpse to a society of necrophiliacs. Let them have some guilt free sex for once! I don’t care, because I CAN’T care, cause I’m dead!”

      3. It’s clear this is written by someone in their 20s.

        Not necessarily. I’m sixty years old and I agree with Epi. A dead body is a dead body – it can be compared to a blown light bulb. I have no idea whether any part of our being survives death, but a corpse is just as lifeless as that light bulb is lightless – and just about as comforting.

        1. I’m 50, and I agree with Epi too, though the additional years have mellowed me and inclined me to post a less confrontational rebuttal than Epi went with.

    2. Ah, but would you feel the same if you found out that Joe had bought your corpse in advance?

      1. Just because the FBI hasn’t found your body yet doesn’t mean you’re not dead. You should have known how thin the air is up there. Two hundred grand can’t buy air pressure, dude.

        1. He’s Agent Cooper, not the hijacker.

          1. No, he’s the airplane jumping criminal. Just look at him.

            1. I’m trying, but that damn’ fine cup of coffee blocks my view.

      2. dbcooper|7.10.10 @ 1:38PM|#
        “Ah, but would you feel the same if you found out that Joe had bought your corpse in advance?”
        Depends on what Joe offered; no more, no less.
        Any good sells or doesn’t based on the ‘for’/’ask’ delta.

    3. Fucking word. Donate my organs and get me one of those tree burials.

      1. How about if we stick a bone up your ass and let the dogs drag you away?

        1. Damned shit-eating dogs!

      2. Sell the organs so that your estate can bequeath the proceeds to whomever you see fit.

    4. OK, so if you truly believe in that outlook, then a dead body is just potential property just like any other inanimate object. A living body is not really considered the property of the one whose body it is, so it’s hard to imagine that it would suddenly become property of the deceased at death.

      So, neither you nor your family should have special claim to what happens with your body after death. So whoever happens to be around at the time of death can claim the body to be their property, just like with flotsam and jetsam on the sea. So if a perturbed EMS guy wants to have you taxidermized and displayed on his front lawn being simultaneously sodomized by two taxidermized kangaroos, he can do it, and neither you nor your family can do anything about it.

      1. This is all true only if you do not consider a person to own his body while alive. I’m afraid I and many others would disagree with you on that point. In fact I can’t really conceive of anyone with libertarian tendencies who would agree with you here.

        1. We have to be careful not to equivocate here. The libertarian maxim that “you own yourself” is using a different sense of the word “own” from what one would use for property. Some libertarians support eminent domain under strict circumstances, but they would not support the government paying you a fair price for yourself and taking ownership of you. Most libertarians would oppose a contract that sells oneself into slavery, but if the ownership of one’s body is a property-type thing then this would go against the belief in free trade.

          1. To be fair I don’t consider someone who opposes a contract that would sell yourself into slavery to be much of a libertarian. Which could be why even among this group I find so few I truly agree with.

            As for your eminent domain example, doesn’t that support the notion of owning your body more than it conflicts with it? If you didn’t own that bag of meat, not only would an eminent domain seizure be acceptable, but the fair price would be 0. Self defense wouldn’t even be a valid concept, as your meat isn’t your property so you have no right to prevent others from tampering with it. If anything, the animosity towards transfer of bodily ownership proves most people instinctively consider their bodies as a certain type of property with absolute ownership that cannot be transferred.

            Plasma is frequently sold. Where does this fit in?

            1. To be fair I don’t consider someone who opposes a contract that would sell yourself into slavery to be much of a libertarian.

              Your words appear to be English, but they are put together in an odd order.

              The whole point of the self-ownership concept is that one’s body is one’s inalienable property — you can’t permanently alienate your rights in it, just as you can’t permanently alienate your free speech rights or other natural rights, even if at the moment that appears to be a good idea.

              1. I suppose “inalienable” is where everything breaks down for me vs most other libertarians. If you cannot surrender something, in what sense can you truly be said to own it? You can come very close to making “rights” non-transferrable, but once you go all the way you effectively take them away. It’s like limited government. You can make it smaller and smaller, stripping it down to nothing but a tool for protecting individual rights. But once you take it away completely and are left with anarchy, you’ve suddenly looped back around to “might makes right” and you might as well have stuck with totalitarianism.

                So anyone who says I cannot sell myself into slavery or indentured servitude effectively says my self-ownership is limited at best, non-existent at worst. Hopefully you find these words ordered in a more comprehensive fashion.

                1. Well, as a minarchist you’re already comfortable with restricting individual liberty for pragmatic reasons. Prohibitions on using force against others (plus all the other non-coercive things that libertarians try to re-define “force” to cover — fraud, trespassing, perjury, embezzlement, etc) are restrictions on individual liberty.

      2. A living body is not really considered the property of the one whose body it is

        Actually, the fundamental libertarian principle of self-ownership states that one completely owns ones body, and all the productive value created by that body.

        Anything else is slaver, or at least slaver lite, mentality.

  7. I have no opinion on Cryonics. If you want something conservative and a little more down to Earth check out these webpages.…..amp;page;=

  8. “…involves great faith in the competent benevolence of other people.”

    There has to be something like that happening, subconsciously or otherwise. Those are nice terms Howley used, but it could just as easily be narcissism.

    Most of us are willing to do very little to help other people who are very much still alive, somewhere else on the globe, and speaking for myself, I find the people of the past interesting, but I wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice much to bring peasants from the past back to life.

    Why do these people assume the people of tomorrow will be willing to make the effort to bring them back?

    If I knew people from past generations wanted to come back, that might affect the calculation somehow, but don’t we assume the people suffering us around don’t want to suffer? We make a donation to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army on their behalf, but how many of us are willing to do anything more inconvenient than that?

    1. Maybe not as grandiose as believing that the creator of the universe came down from heaven just so that he could die for you!

      …but there’s still something like that going on here.

    2. I can see it now. Lol. “All of these past people are taking our jobs!” Next thing you know, there will be a political movement to have all cryonic devices unplugged. Or they’ll put you on a waiting list, so when you are unfrozen, it will be 100 years later than you expected, and you’ll have to work for a number of years before you’re able to unfreeze your other friends or family. They’ll probably make you work to pay off any unexpected costs. Lol.

      1. See: Larry Niven; corpsicles

      2. See also: Allen Steele- “Working for Mr. Chicago”/ “A King of Infinite Space”

    3. Why do these people assume the people of tomorrow will be willing to make the effort to bring them back?

      Reality TV. Think of the possibilities. Who Wants To Marry An 800-Year-Old?, Quincentenarian Survivor, and of course America’s Most Frigid Housewife.

    4. “Why do these people assume the people of tomorrow will be willing to make the effort to bring them back?”

      Well, you’d want to revive your friends and family, wouldn’t you? And, likewise, they’d probably like to revive their friends and family. The last people to be cryopreserved will likely be the first one’s out, since they will have had the advantage of using the best cryopreservation techniques. As the most recent cryonicists are revived, they will have an incentive to revive their friends and family who were cryopreserved before them.

      As cryonics matures, people will also likely establish prizes and other rewards for their successful revival.

      1. Teh Mormons!

        I forgot all about teh Mormons!

        Q: Why would people go to the effort to trace their ancestry back and baptize each and every one?

        A: Because they’re Mormon.

        I guess the old adage is true; if you want to understand cryo-heads, you gotta think like a Mormon.

        1. Seriously, this could be even bigger than Scientology!

          Fundamentalists are always calling atheism a religion anyway; time to show ’em how to do it…

          You just splice transhumanism onto it, with the singularity and the whole bit, and then you add in everything the Mormons do with their ancestor baptism too…it’ just instead of baptizing your ancestors, you’re freezing their heads. …and bringing up your children to take care of your head, and so on, and so on, all waiting for the singularity!

          I think 10% of your gross (that’s off the top, not the net) is an entirely reasonable price to charge an atheist and his descendants for the best reasonable chance for immortality. And once you get the heredity involved, the sky’s the limit….

          Everybody has a vested interest in thawing you out once the singularity hits, you know? Teach your kids the new atheist ancestor worship, and that kinda system has legs, historically.

          …and if the singularity never happens? Then Ken Shultz himself will show up at the gates of hell and offer you 100% of your atheist money back, guaranteed!

          I guess that last part’s already been done.

    5. Compound interest is the most power force in the universe.

    6. Well, presumably it’s written into the contract that the cryonics firm is required to arrange revival when it becomes possible.

  9. great faith in the competent benevolence of other people

    Count your change before leaving the window.

  10. Even if you don’t want to join your husband in storage, ask believers, what is to be lost by respecting a man’s wishes with regard to the treatment of his own remains?

    It costs resources to store a frozen head cryonically, and the spouse who thinks this extreme gamble will fail will naturally resent the siphoning of resources.

    And if the spouse isn’t madly in love with their mate, they would be even less inclined to blithely pay large sums of money to preserve that frozen head against some miniscule chance of revival.

    1. A properly funded and managed trust can cover those resources. Now, for those sloppy lab techs letting parts thaw ahead of schedule or freezing things at the wrong rate . . .

      1. Yes, but why the heck would the spouse want to permit you to set up that trust fund if she values having fun with that money over the miniscule (or even not so miniscule) chance you will be resurrected? It’s not like there aren’t replacement spouses out there that wouldn’t entail this ongoing drain of money.

        Cryogenics seems to me to be a form of denial, a defense mechanism for people who haven’t come to grips that some day they will be a slab of cold meat.

        I’ve touched my dead father’s cold body at the mortuary. It was an awful day, but that experience really put an end to any denial on my part about what is in store for all of us.

        1. “Cryogenics seems to me to be a form of denial, a defense mechanism for people who haven’t come to grips that some day they will be a slab of cold meat.”

          It’s exactly that. …but people have to replace their religion with something. …and cryogenics is a lot cheaper than tithing, I bet.

          Transhumanism is a lot like that too.

          You can’t just say, well, I’m going to be a slab of meat someday, and the earth is just gonna spin it’s way around the sun without me someday, and everyone should be okay with that.

          Social adaptations are as much a function of evolution as anything else. There’s a reason why homonids have evolved a capacity for language that other species in our genus haven’t. And how people deal with death is probably a bigger part of that equation than most people appreciate.

          Some people feel better because they’ve passed their genes on. Some think God’s gonna come back and resurrect them. Some hope for some transhumanist future where death becomes pretty much voluntary. Some people freeze their dead heads. They’re all scratching the same itch.

          Telling people to ignore the itch isn’t the solution. The itch is there. …and it’s workin’ on us all the time. Ignoring it won’t make it go away, and pretending it isn’t there is irrational.

          1. I’m not sure I see any point.
            Yes, some folks have a hard time with the fact that they’re ‘not here’ after they die.
            “…but people have to replace their religion with something…”
            Any cite for this claim?

            1. The pervasive belief among liberal atheists that the state knows all and can fairly provide for all should be considered evidence for this viewpoint. You may have noticed that many feel this with a religious conviction (by that I mean belief in spite of all evidence to the contrary). This attitude, to me, suggests that many atheists are actually religious people.

            2. Anthropology 101.

              Every culture from pre-history on has evolved some way of coping with death.

              Show me one that hasn’t.

              From transhumanism to cryogenics, I just showed ways that atheists cope with death.

              Being above that doesn’t make anyone superior–it makes you an outlier.

              All cultures have adapted ways to cope with death. There’s nothing to proven about it. …and arguing the point is absurd.

              1. Being above that doesn’t make anyone superior–it makes you an outlier.

                It means you’ve gotten to the fifth stage of the grieving process — acceptance — before others, in coping with your own mortality.

                But there’s no shame in taking however much time it takes to get through that grieving process.

                1. Still, this piece reminds of that scene in Moonstruck

                  …where Olympia Dukakis’ husband is running around town with a younger woman making a fool of himself. And she’s sitting at home waiting for her husband to come home, and she asks her friend what it is that makes grown men behave like that, and her friend replies something like “Fear of death”. Her husband walks through the door at that moment and says, “Hello everybody, I’m home.”, and she looks straight at him and says something like, “You know you’re gonna die just like everybody else, right?”

                  Yeah, you can freeze your head, buddy boy, and maybe someday you’ll live another life with someone else. In the meantime, we’re gonna split what’s left of you, and do whatever the hell we want with it…


    2. Or you could put the body in an orbiting satellite, where the cold and antiseptic environment comes for free, and you just have to worry about keeping the corpse from desiccating.

      1. The environment is free but last I checked the launch services store, they were pricey.

        1. Yeah. We just need to get that corpse elevator up and running.

  11. “Do us part.” “Us” be the object of that there sentence.

  12. Great post!

  13. What is a person?

    I am not who i was 20 years ago and i will not be who i am 20 years from now.

    In fact the person who was Joshua Corning 20 years from now is in all intensive purposes dead. Just as the Joshua Corning that exists today will be dead 20 years from now…even if no death certificate is ever givin and a person named Joshua Corning is walking around using my social security number.

    There can never be immortality out side of a frozen block of ice kept at zero degree Kalvin.

    1. Then why the hell aren’t you blowing all your savings and investments on a weekend of debauchery in Cleveland? Since you’re going to be dead, well, a second from now.

  14. Will they all ‘wake up’ some day with a really bad popsical headache?

  15. The real debate will be about if culture, the economy, technology and society has drifted to far for the unfrozen to cope.

    Imagine unfreezing your average 60 year old who was frozen in 1920.

    Don’t even worry about the internet and gay marriage….worry that your average 60 year old from 1920 probably can’t read and write.

    Your average 60 year old from 2010 will be equally as ignorant in 2100.

    1. Imagine unfreezing your average 60 year old who was frozen in 1920.

      I really wish the movie Just Imagine were available on DVD.

      This bizarre 1930 movie is set in the distant future… of 1980! Half of the plot involves the resuscitation of a man who was killed by a lightning strike in 1930, with the humor being that he’s clearly a fish out of water. Of course, Hollywood’s vision for 1980 is way, way, off, but that’s part of the fun.

    2. Every single newborn ever starts out in worse shape than that — incapable of understanding any words, or even understanding the concept of words.

      Yes, the elderly would need to unlearn some stuff, and don’t have the learning plasticity that young kids have, but they’ve all have many decades of experience coping with change.

      1. Infants also have parents and a society that’s dedicated to making them into functioning adults. A senior citizen coming out of cryo doesn’t.

        And the experience they have is of continuous change, not the abrupt sort they’d be dealing with coming out of cryo.

  16. Cutting your head off at death makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. You do that and you preclude any possibility of enjoying a potentially long, healthy and rewarding zombie life.

    1. eating raw flesh is not what’s its cracked up to be. I would kill for a medium-well filet mignon smothered is mushroom sauce.

    2. I don’t think “healthy” means what you think it means. =)

  17. Speaking of Reason writers around town, Politico has an article up questioning whether our old friend Weigal is better off for being fired, comparing him to such phoenixes of disgrace as Eliot Spitzer and David Frum.

  18. The world cup halftime show was lacking.

  19. healthy and rewarding zombie life.

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