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Growing popularity of cryonics raises legal issues

The falling price of cryonics has opened up the possibility of body preservation to more Canadians, Toronto estates and trusts lawyer Suzana Popovic-Montag tells AdvocateDaily.com.

The practice, which involves preserving human bodies at an extremely low temperature, is still in the experimental phase. However, the ultimate aim of many in the field is to enable the revival of customers at some point in the future so that they can resume their lives.

“It may sound like a service that is available only to the ultra-wealthy,” says Popovic-Montag, managing partner at Hull & Hull LLP. “But with the affordability of life insurance policies and the recognition by service providers that life insurance proceeds can be a logical way to fund the fees related to the preservation of a body by cryonics, it is an option that is more accessible than one may believe.”

The U.S.-based Cryonics Institute has reported that 66 of its members are Canadians, and while Alcor Life Extension Foundation, another leading provider of the service, does not disclose its numbers, both have indicated that their international membership is on the rise.

“There are all sorts of different options available to individuals with respect to what they would like to happen with their remains after death. Most people continue to prefer traditional options, such as cremation or burial, but others may find the prospect of possible resuscitation many years in the future appealing, however remote the chance of success may be,” Popovic-Montag says.

If cryonics pioneers get their wish and people are brought back to life at some stage, it could cause problems or potential litigation over estate administration, she says. 

“If there is any real prospect that a person will be revived in the future, this raises a very serious question of what should be done in the interim. Without proper planning, it is likely that the estate of a person preserved by cryonics will be administered in full while his or her body is frozen,” she says.

However, Popovic-Montag says U.S. courts will at least have some precedents to work with, having dealt with similar problems when missing, presumed-dead people were later discovered alive and well.

“They needed court action to regain control over any assets remaining in their names,” she says.

In the meantime, other legal roadblocks have emerged that limit the use of cryonics. For instance, Popovic-Montag says freezing a person before biological death would be a criminal offence because of the likelihood the process would kill the customer.

And in B.C., the CBC reports that a man has launched an action challenging the province’s Cremation, Interment and Funeral Services Act, claiming it effectively bans cryonics. The Act prohibits the sale or marketing of cryonics services that rely “on the expectation of the resuscitation of human remains at a future time.”

“There are no similar restrictions in any other Canadian province,” Popovic-Montag says.

However, in Ontario, the Coroner’s Act requires autopsies in some cases, depending on the cause of death, including those caused by violence or negligence.

“An autopsy typically renders the body less suitable for preservation. Even in situations in which a body is left in a state that is amenable to preservation by freezing, the risk of an autopsy can interfere with the intention of the deceased to be preserved cryogenically,” Popovic-Montag says.

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