Grieving those frozen between life and death

By Robin Hillenbrink.

This paper was inspired by a 2019 documentary about the youngest person to ever be cryopreserved. The documentary, “Hope Frozen: A Quest to Live Twice” , tells the story of a Thai Buddhist couple who decide to cryopreserve their 2-year-old daughter Einz, after she passes away from brain cancer. Cryopreservation, or cryonics, is the storing of legally dead individuals at the low temperature of liquid nitrogen, in the hope that future technologies can revive them, and offer them a longer life. The documentary presents its viewers with a story of grief and hope, but also scandal surrounding the family Naovaratpong after their unorthodox decision. However, one striking and disturbing aspect of the family tale is not given proper attention.

The documentary is for the most part focused on questions concerning the possibility of revival of cryopreserved individuals (or ‘cryonauts’), religious conformity and the condition of Einz’s soul in her preserved state. However, little attention is paid to how her family members are coping with her relatively unique state of being. Yet, interview fragments of Einz’s father and brother do show that they find it difficult to manage their feelings regarding the situation, since Einz appears to exist in a state between life and death — a kind of ‘frozen purgatory’. Those in favor of cryopreservation believe that a person is not truly dead if their brain structures are intact. Therefore, Einz is not conceived of as truly dead, even though she is declared legally dead. In accordance with his uncertain state, neither her father nor her brother can accept Einz’s death. Her brother even goes so far as to state that his ultimate dream is to bring her back, while his father expresses that he will always wait for his daughter.

Following these observations, I was concerned with the mourning process of those grieving a loved one who has been cryopreserved. What impact could cryopreservation have on their mourning process? Psychological literature suggests that there exist certain essential steps in the human mourning process. These steps are ‘essential’ in the sense that if loved ones of a deceased do not succeed in carrying out these tasks, they are more likely to experience grief disorders. However, I found that the cryopreservation procedures and uncertainty regarding the final or non-final death of a person in cryopreservation were for a great part incompatible with these essential mourning steps. This raises the concern that loved ones of cryopreserved persons could be substantially negatively impacted by this choice.

Such a concern for the impact of cryonics on those close to cryopreserved persons is not considered in existing academic literature on the ethics of cryonics. Instead, this literature commonly focuses on arguments concerning potential harm to society at large, or harm that could potentially befall the cryopreserved individual. However, the findings in this paper indicate that a substantial group of people might be suffering in silence (taking into account that at this moment, 5500 people worldwide are cryopreserved or signed up for cryopreservation). Therefore, cryopreservation practices and would-be cryonauts should give greater consideration to the loved ones of the preserved deceased. This paper attempts to take the first step towards such consideration.

Paper: Mourning the frozen: considering the relational implications of cryonics

Authors: Robin Hillenbrink and Christopher Simon Wareham

Affiliations: Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Competing interests: None declared.


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