Orville Richardson was an Alcor member who after his death in Burlington, Iowa, February, 2009, was buried by his next of kin without Alcor’s knowledge. On April 6, 2010, the Iowa Court of Appeals will hear an appeal by Alcor as to why Alcor should be allowed to recover and cryopreserve whatever remains of the brain of Mr. Richardson. Alcor is pursuing this appeal at substantial expense and risk of public misunderstanding because it believes that it has an obligation to fulfill wishes of its members, and defend the primacy of the individual right to choose cryonics.
Orville Richardson joined Alcor in 2004, directing that his remains be cryopreserved for purposes of cryonics research and potential revival in the future. He paid $20,000 for an Alcor Life Membership instead of paying annual membership dues. He also prepaid an additional $50,000 for his neuropreservation (preservation of the brain within the head) cryonics arrangement. This amount was held by Alcor in a segregated account until time of need, with earned interest regularly paid back to Mr. Richardson. Contrary to some media reports, Alcor is not aware of Mr. Richardson leaving any money to Alcor in a will.
Mr. Richardson died on Febrary 19, 2009, at the age of 81. He suffered from dementia the year before his death. He was survived by his brother and sister, his wife having died 22 years earlier. They had no children. On April 21, 2009, his brother wrote Alcor asking that the $50,000 prepaid by Orville Richardson for his cryonics arrangements be refunded to his estate because he “obviously did not utilize this service.” Alcor didn’t know that Mr. Richardson was seriously ill, and only learned of his death upon receipt of this letter. Alcor learned that Mr. Richardson had been embalmed and buried.
Mr. Richardson’s Cryonic Suspension Agreement specified that any biological remains whatsoever were to be cryopreserved regardless of severity of damage due to embalming, decomposition, or other causes. Not all Alcor members choose such broad criteria for proceeding with cryopreservation, but Mr. Richardson did.
After unsuccessful discussions with his brother and sister to obtain access to the remains, Alcor petitioned the Iowa District Court for Des Moines County on June 8, 2009, to compel Mr. Richardson’s siblings to authorize disinterment. This harsh measure, which Alcor regrets was necessary, appeared to be the only way to fulfill Orville’s wishes. Prior to July 1, 2008, Iowa law only gave authority over remains disposition to next of kin. Only by a declaration signed after July 1, 2008, could an Iowa resident designate other parties, such as Alcor, to have authority regarding disposition of their remains according to the Iowa Final Disposition Act.
On July 15, 2009, the District Court denied Alcor’s petition. The court noted that Orville Richardson made his arrangements with Alcor in 2004, prior to the new law that would have allowed him to give remains disposition authority to Alcor. The court ruled that it could not compel Mr. Richardson’s siblings to consent to disinterment because compelled consent would not be consent. The court also ruled that the dispute did not involve the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA), the second body of law, independent of remains disposition statutes, that Alcor operates under.
Alcor decided to appeal, filing notice of appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court on August 12, 2009. At issue is whether the UAGA gives Alcor superior rights over the rights that family members have under the Final Disposition Act, and whether an injunction compelling the siblings to authorize disinterment is the only mechanism of remedy available. The court is being asked to reconcile three bodies of law, which should be valuable for Iowans in the future apart from Alcor’s specific interests. The Iowa Donor Network has filed an Amicus Curiae (friend of the court) brief in support of Alcor’s position that individual wishes for anatomical donation should take priority over family wishes regarding remains disposition. The appeal will be heard by the Iowa Court of Appeals on April 6, 2010.
This is a difficult case for Alcor for many reasons. First and foremost, the case is liable to cause public misunderstanding about what cryonics is. Alcor says that cryonics consists of sophisticated procedures that should be started within minutes of legal death. Alcor often turns away grieving families who contact Alcor offering large amounts of money to cryopreserve loved ones under poor biological conditions. Yet Alcor will sometimes seek to recover members’ remains after very long delays that appear biologically indefensible. Why? The answer is that Alcor acts upon the written wishes of members. Those wishes sometimes specify recovery of “any biological remains whatsoever.” Efforts to recover whatever can be recovered from terrible circumstances should not be confused with cryonics under good conditions.
While Alcor is following wishes for preservation under poor conditions in this case, this case does not imply or endorse beliefs that remains in poor condition can be revived in any ordinary sense. Human life and personhood depend on the brain. Deterioration of a brain after death implies deterioration of the information that comprised the original person. If a person were to someday be reconstituted using only limited genetic and structural information in poorly-preserved remains, it is difficult to say how much the reconstituted person would resemble the original person. Perhaps such a person would be more like a child of the original person.
Alcor members who make the choice to be cryopreserved under any conditions hope for good conditions but understand that their legacy to the future under poor conditions might only be their genes. It is their choice that cryopreservation should proceed nonetheless. They believe there is still some value in the process, and that belief should be respected. Alcor feels obligated to use resources provided for cryopreservation to see that cryopreservation is carried out according to wishes, even under circumstances as tragic as Orville Richardson’s.