Cryonics: Modern ‘Mummies’, Chance for Life After Death?

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About ten years ago, I attended the funeral of the mother of a childhood friend of mine at the Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina. As I was contemplating whether to rush to my office briefly or just go to the cemetery directly from the Church, my friend informed me that they were off to Iju (if my memory serves me right, I think that was the place she mentioned), as her Mother had instructed that she be cremated. My friend sometimes has a strange sense of humour, so I wasn’t quite sure whether to take her seriously or not. When I realised that she was dead serious, I was a bit taken aback. Not that I didn’t know about cremation, after all, its the most common practice of corpse disposal in India, and is also fast becoming quite popular all over the world, but up till that point, I didn’t know anyone that had been cremated. I asked her why Aunty would pick such a way for her body to be disposed of, all that heat, reminding one of hell. My friend answered saying, what did it matter how one’s body is disposed of after death, that after all, the person wouldn’t feel the heat anyway, to which I responded “what if we need our bodies after death?” She looked at me strangely, as if I may be crazy!

Courageous JS

Ten years later, we have the unique case of a fourteen year old British girl, ‘JS’ (only known as JS to protect her identity, being a child), who died of a rare form of cancer on October 17, 2016. Her dying wish was to be ‘frozen’ after death. This act known as “Cryonics”, is the science of using extremely cold temperature (-196°C) to preserve the body of a person, usually gravely ill, and could not be cured by contemporary medicine, with the hope that such a person can be restored to life and obviously good health in the future, when technology is advanced enough to do so. So, my thoughts about maybe needing our bodies after death, may not be so crazy after all! Cryonics reminds me of the somewhat eccentric Dr Who in the classic science-fiction television series, that we all loved to watch as children.

The first person that was cryo-preserved was James Bedford in 1967. JS is one of ten Britons and the first British child to be cryogenically preserved. JS was taken to a facility in USA. Five or six bodies are stored in one twelve foot tank (to save space and cost), hanging upside down to protect their heads in case of nitrogen leakage, in a tank filled with liquid nitrogen at -196°C. Since JS, one hundred Britons have signed up for their corpses to be frozen in the facility that JS is in.

Legal Battle of JS

The legal battle of JS at the Family Division of the High Court in London, was a landmark one, as she is the first child in the UK to win the right to decide what would happen to her body after death. Being a child, she was too young to make a legally recognised will and needed the permission of both her Parents to sign up for the process. Her Parents are divorced, she lived with her mother and had not been in contact with her father since 2008. While she had the support of her mother and her maternal grandparents who were able to raise the £37,000 required for the cryogenic process, her father initially refused to give his consent.

JS then instituted legal proceedings through a solicitor in London, to ensure that her wishes were complied with. Being too ill to attend, she wrote to the Court saying “I have been asked to explain why I want this unusual thing done. I’m only fourteen years old and I don’t want to die, but I know that I am going to. I think being cryo-preserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up, even in hundreds of years’ time. I don’t want to be buried underground. I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future, they might find a cure for my cancer and wake me up. I want to have this chance. This is my wish”.

On October 6, 2016, Mr Justice Peter Jackson, ordered that JS’s mother should have the sole right to make decisions about the disposal of her daughter’s body. He however, stressed that he was not making any ruling about the cryonic preservation. He also granted an injunction, preventing JS’s father from attempting to make any arrangements for the disposal of his daughter’s body.

USA and Russia permit cryo-preservation. Alcor, a company based in Scottsdale, Arizona is the industry leader, while KrioRus, a Russian company, is the third biggest cryonics company in the world. However, most European countries have legislation restricting the preservation of dead bodies. For instance, under French law, a corpse must be buried, cremated or formally donated to science.

Nigerian Factor

Former Cuban President, Fidel Castro, who died on Friday, November 25th, 2016 at the age of 90, instructed that he should be cremated.

In Nigeria, I do not think that the issue of cryo-preservation can arise. We are certainly not ready for it and frankly, I don’t think we will be in the next 100 years! Apart from the fact that the process requires constant electricity supply to keep the bodies frozen at a particular temperature, something which we obviously do not have, our laws seem to be static, and not dynamic, changing to move with the demands of present time.

Even in the case of cremation, though the former Governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola SAN signed a Cremation Bill into law in 2013, saying that “cremation is a way to go, given the mega-city status of Lagos”, the Pan Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere, decried the cremation law, saying that it is against the tradition and culture of the Yoruba race. A lot of Nigerians, non-Yourubas too, share the sentiments of Afenifere, finding the act of cremation repugnant and against our culture, talk less of cryo-preservation!