Volume 6, Issue 1 
June 2011

The Medico-Legal Need for a Cryonics-Friendly Autopsy

Loraine J. Rhodes, CLA

This brief was submitted for publication to the Journal of Personal Cyberconsciousness by Loraine J. Rhodes, CLA, Legal Research and Writing Manager for the Space Coast, FL office of Terasem Movement, Inc.

A staunch supporter of one’s right to elect cryopreservation over traditional cremation or burial, Loraine’s ongoing research focuses on minimizing the impedance of an optimal cryopreservation by the medical and/or legal requirements of a forensic autopsy.

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"Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succure vitae"
"This is the place where death delights to serve the living!"
– Giovanni Morgagni [1]

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I am a Legal Researcher for Terasem Movement, Inc. [2], a privately endowed, 501c3 organization whose missions include educating the public on matters concerning life extension. Though I am not currently a member of a cryonics organization, I am a cryonics advocate with a stalwart belief in a person’s right to elect cryo-preservation as opposed to burial or cremation.


Through the completion of a Uniform Anatomical Gift Act [3] form, a person (or his/her personal representative) makes a conscious decision to donate his/her, or a loved one's body or head (neuro) to a recognized cryonics organization. These individuals believe in the possibility of a future revival when medicine, science, and technology provide a cure for what robbed he/she of precious life.

A forensic or medico-legal autopsy performed upon a member of a cryonics organization impedes the vitrification process. Hence, this problem requires addressing and the formation of an immediate resolve. The law pertaining to religious objection to autopsy has not always proven successful. No other regulation or regulatory body exists to thwart a lengthy or invasive autopsy after a coroner, medical examiner, or pathologist is alerted to a decedent’s membership to a recognized cryonics organization.

Costly and avoidable litigation within our judicial system is a continuing result of the absence of such law [4].


Cryonics and nanotechnology are increasingly turned to as a resource to preserve the precious gift of life after all efforts of modern science, medicine, and technology have been exhausted and fail to restore the health of a Human Being. Lack of legal protection or support prevents some people from joining a registered cryonics organization.

Clinical autopsy (for educational purposes) and forensic or medico-legal autopsy (for investigative purposes) have been routinely performed and utilized on the U. S. Standard Death Certificate since 1910. In 2003, of the reported deaths in the United States, 7.1% or 174,461 autopsies were performed [5]. Of the five categorized manners of death [6]: Natural; Accident; Suicide; Homicide; and Undetermined (or could not be Determined), less than 50% certainty, four categories may necessitate a forensic or medico-legal autopsy.

Adhering to the directive(s) of a decedent is ethical and traditionally, legally enforced, and will permit the decedent’s cryonics organization to fulfill its contractual obligation. It is paramount that a coroner, medical examiner, or pathologist performs a most expeditious and least invasive autopsy (scanning or imaging v. dissection). This allows the contracted, specified cryonics organization to acquire the decedent’s full body or neuro (head) to begin the protocol necessary to minimize ischemic damage and cellular degradation - thereby optimizing one’s cryo-preservation or vitrification.


  1. Of the approximate 2,000 current members of cryonics organizations (the statistics above suggest), it is projected that as many as 142 of future cryo-preservations may be compromised by forensic or medico-legal autopsies.

  2. If a timely acquisition of the body or head by a decedent’s cryonics organization is required for an optimal cryopreservation - what emphasis should be placed on the swift performance of an autopsy?

  3. If a forensic or medico-legal autopsy were necessary and pertained only to the torso and/or limbs - what authority would dictate that a coroner, medical examiner, or pathologist allow the cryonics organization to swiftly acquire the head of a decedent?

  4. If a person donates his/her full body or head to a specified cryonics organization - why isn’t such a donation treated identical to that of organ donation?


  1. Lack of Cryonics-Specific Legislation
    Courts have upheld the right of a person to elect cryonic suspension [7]. However, the lack of cryonics-specific legislation proves problematic. Cryopreservation often encounters technical or religious compromise. A stressful, legal, costly, and time-consuming burden falls on both the family of a decedent and the decedent’s chosen cryonics organization. To hasten the performance of a timely autopsy, a cryonics organization will more-than-likely opt to pay for or reimburse a city or county its medical examiner’s fee(s) than commence litigation.

    The Cryonics Institute [8] in Michigan reports three of its recent twenty-seven cryo-preservations (or 11%), were impeded by autopsy. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation [9] estimates, "A quick look at records plus memory shows at least six of our one hundred-two cases (5.8% or about 1 in 17), were clearly impeded by autopsy." The numbers estimated from the cryonics organizations above with the autopsy percentage rate of reported deaths in 2003, predict the chances of an optimal cryo-preservation or vitrification being impeded by autopsy at 9.4%.

  2. Timeliness Quality of Preservation Swift Performance
    When a forensic or medico-legal autopsy is deemed necessary and greater documentation exists proving his/her desire for cryo-preservation, greater consideration should be given to a decedent’s wishes. As stated within Thompson v. Deeds, 93 Iowa 228, 231, 61 N.W. 842, 843 (1895), "[I]t always has been, and will ever continue to be, the duty of courts to see to it that the expressed wish of one, as to his final resting place, shall, so far as it is possible, be carried out."). On March 1, 2010, an El Paso County Colorado Court upheld the right of decedent, Mary Robbins, to be cryopreserved.
    "The documentation and analysis of postmortem findings with CT and MR imaging and postprocessing techniques ("virtopsy") is investigator independent, objective, and noninvasive and will lead to qualitative improvements in forensic pathologic investigation." [10]

  3. Non-involvement of head swift release
    The neuro (head) to full body cryo-preservation ratio is reported at two to one respectively. Alcor Life Extension Foundation states:
    "By directing preservation efforts toward the brain, it is possible to cryopreserve a brain with better quality than is possible if an entire body is cryopreserved. It is expected that the ability to re-grow a new body around a repaired brain will be part of the capabilities of future medicine. However, removing a brain today from its protective enclosure (the skull) would cause unnecessary damage. Alcor therefore leaves the brain protected within the head during preservation and storage. While neuro-preservation may seem strange, it is scientifically the best way known to preserve a human life indefinitely." [11]

  4. Donation of full body or head Treat as organ donation
    Upon execution of a Uniform Anatomical Gift Act form, a full body or neuro donation is analogous to organ donation and/or transplantation in that a decedent donates his/her body or head to a specific organization. When a decedent is an organ donor and an autopsy is legally required,
    "[T]he timing of organ transplantations is such that organs are transplanted before the availability of autopsy results… ." "In most cases, the part of the autopsy dissection in which the organs are removed and examined macroscopically requires 2 or 3 hours at most." [12]
    Ralph Merkle Ph.D. within his "information-theoretic death" criterion postulated in his 1994 paper entitled, "Molecular Repair of the Brain"[13],
    "[A]s long as the structures that encode the memory and personality of a human being have not been irretrievably "erased" (to use computer jargon) then restoration to a fully functional state with memory and personality intact is in principle feasible."
    Based on Dr. Merkle’s criterion above, many speculate "information-theoretic death" occurs within hours of the legal declaration of death when a body remains at room temperature. However; this occurs at a much slower rate when the body is cooled. It is virtually halted when the body is brought down to liquid nitrogen temperature. This vital state occurs after a cryonics organization is quickly permitted to administer their ‘life preserving’ protocol, beginning the vitrification process.


An increasing number of Press drawing, cryonics-related legal cases have entered our judicial system. My goal is to bring to the medical and legal forefront the desperate need for a third category of autopsy to be performed on the body of a cryonics organization member. An optimal cryopreservation calls for the least invasive (scanning or imaging v. dissection) and most expeditious procedures. This third category of autopsy will serve to reduce the stress unduly put upon grieving families and the related cryonics organization.

Time, Temperature and Technique Matter

Time: Every minute saved reduces damage. Since time is critical to a cryonicist, please place his/her autopsy (when forensically required) at the head of the list.

Temperature: Immediate and continued storage just above freezing is ideal, 2° C – 36° F. Lower temperatures reduce metabolism. A reduced metabolism reduces metabolic damage.

Technique: A Non-Invasive Autopsy demonstrates the greatest respect for individual choice and self-determination by inflicting the least harm.

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[1] Giovanni Morgagni - a physician from the 18th century who originated the anatomical concept of human disease.
http://www.faqs.org/health/bios/62/Giovanni-Battista-Morgagni.html January 24, 2011 10:11AM EST

[2] Terasem Movement, Inc. www.TerasemCentral.org

[3] U.S. Uniform Anatomical Gift Act
http://anatomicalgiftact.org/DesktopDefault.aspx May 12, 2010 2:05PM EST

[4] Jenkins, Colleen. "Tampa man's wish to be frozen after death prompts fight over autopsy." St. Petersburg Times Online 11 Dec. 2009
http://www.tampabay.com/news/courts/civil/tampa-mans-wish-to-be-frozen-after-death-prompts-fight-over-autopsy/1057857 April 7, 2011 1:10PM EST

[5] Hoyert DL, Kung HC, Xu J. Autopsy patterns in 2003. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 20(32). 2007, 8.
http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_20/sr20_032.pdf May 12, 2010 1:39PM EST

[6] "A Guide For Manner of Death Classification, First Edition." National Association of Medical Examiners. Feb 2002. 6 May 2010

[7] Alcor Life Extension Foundation v. Richardson, 2010 Iowa App. LEXIS 422, No. 0-098/09-1255 (Iowa Ct. App. May 12, 2010) (available at http://www.alcor.org/Library/pdfs/RichardsonCase.pdf); and In re Robbins, No. 2010PR149 (Colo D.C. Mar 1, 2010 - available at http://www.alcor.org/Library/pdfs/Alcor-RobbinsSettlement.pdf).

[8] http://www.cryonics.org

[9] http://www.alcor.org

[10] Dirnhofer, MD, Richard et al. RadioGraphics (Sept/Oct 2006); Vol 26, Vol 5:1305–1333 Published online 10.1148/rg.265065001.
http://radiographics.rsna.org/content/26/5/1305.full.pdf May 11, 2011 12:20PM EST

[11] "Cryonics Myths: Myth 6: Cryonics preserves 'heads.'" Alcor Life Extension Foundation.
http://alcor.org/cryomyths.html#myth6 May 12, 2010 3:43PM EST

[12] Hoyert D. The autopsy, medicine, and mortality statistics. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 3(32). 2001, 8, 13.

[13] "Molecular Repair of the Brain." Alcor Online Library. Jan. & Apr. 1994
http://alcor.org/Library/html/MolecularRepairOfTheBrain.htm. May 17, 2010 10:30AM


Loraine Rhodes

Loraine J. Rhodes, CLA is a nationally Certified Legal Assistant applying her knowledge in medical, commercial, and military microelectronics to where the law and technology intersect.

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