Death + Biology Death + Technology Defying Death

Freezing Yourself like Time in a Bottle

Cryogenic Preservation Is Changing What It Means to Be Dead
If you could freeze yourself until a future age, are you sure you’d want to?
Judith Shulevitz, The New Republic (July 27, 2014)

Good article in The New Republic on the uses (and abuses) of extreme cold technology for the nearly dead, almost dead, and very certainly completely dead.

Just remember: cryopreserving yourself for the future may one day be feasible (maybe), but is it desirable?

That’s the question.

Besides, the actor Timothy Hutton can only defend the rights of one defrosted humanoid during his lifetime.

Death + Biology Death + Technology Death Ethics

Day 30: Bringing the Dead Back to (Some Kind of) Life

9 Things to Know About Reviving the Recently Dead
Greg Miller, Wired Magazine (July 30, 2014)

Great article in today’s Wired about research by Dr. David Casarett on methods used to revive, resuscitate, and bring back the dead. Casarett’s work is in his new book called Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead.

Interestingly, Greg Miller at Wired notes that:

Casarett is enthusiastic about the emerging technologies that are allowing doctors to save patients who would have been a lost cause in the very recent past. But these technologies come at a cost, he writes. They may restore life, but whether it’s a life worth living is another matter.

And while Casarett originally became a Doctor so that he could develop new technologies to bring back the dead, he’s now working in hospice and palliative care.

Sometimes staying dead is better than the ‘life’ a resuscitated person experiences.

The Death Reference Desk has featured a series of stories on the ins and outs of Do Not Resuscitate orders. And DNR tattoos. You can find those posts here.

Death + Biology Death + Technology Death + the Web

Radiolab: Am I Going To Die This Year? A Mathematical Puzzle

Am I Going To Die This Year? A Mathematical Puzzle
Robert Krulwich, Radiolab (January 08, 2014)

Radiolab co-host, Robert Krulwich, posted a fascinating piece on a mathematical approach to determining when a person might die. Krulwich explains how he first picked up this topic:

A few years ago, physicist Brian Skinner asked himself: What are the odds I will die in the next year? He was 25. What got him wondering about this, I have no idea, but, hey, it’s something everybody asks. When I can’t wedge my dental floss between my two front teeth, I ask it, too. So Brian looked up the answer — there are tables for this kind of thing — and what he discovered is interesting. Very interesting. Even mysterious.

It turns out that a fascinating 8-year rule emerges for most human lifespans. I will let you read all about it.

Tick-Tock goes the clock.

And welcome to 2014.

Skull Clock

Death + Biology Death + Technology Death + the Economy Death Ethics Suicide

Radically Extending Life and Choosing to Die

Living to 120 and Beyond: Americans’ Views on Aging, Medical Advances and Radical Life Extension
Pew Research Center (August 2013)
If new medical treatments could slow the aging process and allow people to live to age 120 and beyond, would you want to? A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that most Americans say “no” – they personally would not want a radically extended life span. But roughly two-thirds think that most other people would.


Dying with Dignity and the Final Word on Her Life
by Michael Winerip, New York Times (August 05, 2013)
Those closest to Jane Lotter recalled her as spunky, self-aware and wise beyond her 60 years. So when she told her family that she planned to write her own obituary, they weren’t surprised.


Fatal Mercies
by Frank Bruni, New York Times (August 11, 2013)
The assisted-suicide prosecution of a Pennsylvania woman who allegedly gave her father the morphine he requested seems both imprudent and inhumane.


Nurse Charged with Assisting in Her Father’s Death
by Richard Knox, National Public Radio (July 31, 2013)


Pew Research Center Reports on Life Extension, Bioethics, Religion, and Ethnic Groups
To Count Our Days: The Scientific and Ethical Dimensions of Radical Life Extension

Religious Leaders’ Views on Radical Life Extension

Racial and Ethnic Groups View Radical Life Extension Differently


Some Further Articles on the Pew Report
Slate: Fear of Immortality
Americans don’t want to extend their declining years. But what if you could stay young?
by William Saletan, Slate (August 06, 2013)


The Atlantic: Cheating death and being okay with God
Among the widespread coverage of the Pew Research report on radical life extension was this piece in The Atlantic, which highlights the fact that one-in-four Americans believe that, by the year 2050, the average person will live to be at least 120. The article also looks at some religious leaders’ reactions to that possibility.


The Associated Press: Aging America: Living to 120? No thanks, many say in new survey
The Associated Press highlights several findings from the Pew Research survey on radical life extension, including that most Americans say they want to live to be 79 to 100 years old; the median age to which survey respondents want to live is 90 years.

Over the last few weeks, a series of death-related articles overlapped. One series of stories focused on a recent Pew Research Center report on Life Extension. The other stories discussed assisted dying. The overlap was interesting because if and when radical (or even medium-ish) life extension is achieved, then an entirely new kind of assisted dying debate will ensue.

For those not up to speed on the life extension arguments, I suggest reading through the Pew materials. What’s key with any plausible life extension model is that it increases human lifespan while significantly decreasing (or stopping) human ageing. In other words, if you live to be 500 years old, you do not want a body that is physically 500 years old. For most life extension arguments to succeed, then the human bodies biological systems will have to be augmented or changed to prevent ageing.

Assisted dying and suicide debates have followed alongside life extension discussions since individuals with radically longer life-spans (where physical ageing is stopped) may choose to simply end their lives as opposed to waiting another 100 years for death.

These are all speculative points, but worth contemplating now as really important thought experiments.

Here is another way to think about the connections between human mortality, death, and ageing. All of the health problems we humans associate today with old age (arthritis, cancer, alzheimer’s disease and dementia in particular) might also be ways of saying ‘ageing.’

So, if you want to live forever then you better stop the body’s physical breakdown, otherwise death will become preferable to life at all costs.

Death + Biology

Dead Men Do Talk. Sometimes.

First Interview with a Dead Man
Helen Thomson, NewScientist Mindscapes (May 23 2013)

Cotard’s syndrome is one of those rare conditions a person reads about in the historical literature but rarely, if ever, comes across today. Cases do pop up, but they’re often missed. In a nutshell, a person (who is very much alive) believes that he or she is dead. Sometimes an individual’s limbs will feel as if they’re dead.

NewScientist has a fantastic, short article on a man suffering from Cotard’s syndrome but what’s really important is that doctors got a scan of the man’s brain. Lo and behold, the frontal and parietal lobes resembled those regions of the brain but for a person in a persistent vegetative state.

The entire article is worth reading.

The radio progamme Radiolab also did a short piece on Cotard’s syndrome in July 2009.

Afterlife Death + Biology Death + Technology Death Ethics Suicide

Six-Degrees of Kevin Bacon Flatlining. Poor sad Billy Mahoney

‘Erasing Death’ Explores the Science Of Resuscitation
Fresh Air with Terry Gross (February 20, 2013)

Terry Gross, of Fresh Air and National Public Radio fame, interviewed Dr. Sam Parnia regarding his new book on human death experiences. It’s one of the most interesting near death/after death discussions that I have heard in a long time. It’s a fascinating topic, laden with metaphysics and theology, but Parnia’s research approach seems to use science, medicine, philosophy, and religion.

Anyone in Generation X, such as myself, Parnia’s work will automatically conjure images of an after death Kevin Bacon in the 1990 classic Flatliners.

Poor sad Billy Mahoney.

Death + Biology Death + the Law Death Ethics Suicide

Radiolab short on Medical Doctors and their End-of-Life Choices

The Bitter End
Radiolab short (January 15, 2013)
We turn to doctors to save our lives — to heal us, repair us, and keep us healthy. But when it comes to the critical question of what to do when death is at hand, there seems to be a gap between what we want doctors to do for us, and what doctors want done for themselves.

This past week, the WNYC’s Radiolab ran a really good short on death, dying, and end-of-life choices. The show, The Bitter End, focused on the fascinating Johns Hopkins Precursors Study which asks Medical Doctors the following:

What are your preferences “…for treatment given a scenario of irreversible brain injury without terminal illness.”

The study has found time and time again that Medical Doctors do not want most (if any) medical treatments that would prolong their lives in this given situation. This finding stands in contrast to members of the general public who generally do want aggressive, life-prolonging treatments. The Radiolab reporters do a good job discussing these medical options with all kinds of people. You should also read the Radiolab blog post, which covers the Precursors Study.

The show flagged up, once again, an issue that the Death Reference Desk has been asking readers since it started: How much and what kind of end-of-life care you want?

This is a question, as most people can see, that only individuals can answer themselves and we here at Death Ref would encourage everyone to have this conversation with their next-of-kin. The Radiolab story captures precisely this kind of conversation between host Jad Abumrad and his Medical Doctor father.

The radio short also mentions, albeit briefly, a form of Do Not Resuscitate tattoo. Regular Death Ref readers will of course remember the recent run of DNR tattoo posts: Do Not Resuscitate this Tattoo or the Person Attached to It and Do Not Resuscitate Tattoos Cannot be Stopped.

Coincidentally, the New York Times ran a blog post today entitled When the Patient Knows Best and it covers many of the points in the Radiolab story.

Many thanks to Radiolab for putting the programme together.

Afterlife Death + Biology Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Defying Death

Cryopreserve Me into the FUTURE!

In Pictures: Frozen in Time
Photographer Murray Ballard catalogues the world of cryonics, which involves freezing a dead person’s body in liquid nitrogen until technology has advanced enough to bring them back to life.


Photographer Murray Ballard’s Best Shot
‘This is a cryonics lab. Four whole bodies can be frozen in each vat. But just getting your head done is cheaper’
Kate Abbott, The Guardian (August 15, 2011)

One day, in the future, the people who chose to have either their heads or their whole bodies cryogenically preserved will look back at these photos as the in-between-time in their lives.

So the theory of cryopreservation and eventual reanimation suggests.

I’m still not sold on the idea that cryopreservation will work but I am fascinated by the people who opt for the procedure.

I am also curious what happens when people who died a century (or more) ago find themselves in a world which has moved on without them. That specific problem fascinates me the most.

But we are not here today to discuss the practicalities of cryopreservation. No no. We’re here to discuss photography. It just so happens that a new photography exhibition by Murray Ballard has opened in Bradford, England and it captures how the cryopreservation process appears to the non-cryogenically preserved individual.

Ballard’s images, which can be seen in the articles at the top, show how industrially heavy the cryopreservation process becomes. I was also struck by how low-tech the entire process looks in these photographs.

Robert Ettinger, the man considered to be the ‘father of modern cryogenics,’ recently died and you can read his obituary here. His body was cryopreserved after he died.

And here is a little 1990’s era cryopreservation humor….

Death + Biology Death + Technology Eco-Death

Soylent Green is Dead Bodies Eaten by Mushrooms

Green Burial Project Developing Corpse-Eating Mushrooms
Paul Ridden, (July 29, 2011)


The Infinity Burial Project
Jae Rhim Lee

Every once in a while I come across a new-dead-body-disposal-concept which I really like. Indeed, I really wish that I had tons of excess cash so that I could start my own dead body technology R&D company which would then develop innovative and exciting new ways to handle human corpses. We would be the Venture Capital worlds Death Angels. Or, if YOU happen to be a Venture Capital investor reading the Death Reference Desk (it could happen…) then drop me a line because I’ve got lots of great final disposition ideas!

Until that happens, I’ll confine myself to ye olde Death Ref.

Back in July, I came across this short Gizmag post on artist Jae Rhim Lee and her cultivation of flesh eating mushrooms. Actually she’s working with run-of-the-mill shiitake and oyster mushrooms and isn’t bioengineering some new kind of flesh eating fungus. Too bad, really.

Anyway, Jae Rihm Lee’s project taps into the burgeoning world of green burial technologies, a topic which Meg, Kim, and I have covered in depth on the Death Reference Desk (I strongly suggest reading Kim’s excellent Green Burial: A Review post).

Here is how Gizmag’s Paul Ridden explains Jae Rihm Lee’s mushroom idea:

The Infinity Burial Suit prototype is made of organic cotton and covered with an embroidered net of thread which resembles the growth pattern of mushroom mycelium, and that has been infused with mushroom spores. A special cocktail of minerals and spores will also be introduced into the corpse itself, that will encourage mushroom growth from the inside. Special make-up based on the spore slurry is also being considered that will quickly break down and assist the decomposition process.


The project is aiming towards the development of a natural burial system which will facilitate decomposition of the body, remediate accumulated body toxins, and deliver nutrients to plants in the surrounding area. Lee also hopes that the Infinity Burial Project will help raise awareness of the concept of death acceptance, rather than continuing to try and detach ourselves from our inevitable end.

In a nutshell, what Jae Rhim Lee is proposing would work. I’m not sure that it is any more cost-effective than just leaving a dead body to decompose in a forest but that’s a tricky legal situation. Besides, if a dead body, um, dies in a forest and is then devoured by mushrooms and no one sees it, then what fun is that? Besides torturing an already over used metaphor.

So I absolutely support the Infinity Burial Suit project, mostly because I can now embed the trailer for the BEST 1970s dystopian future film of all time: Soylent Green!

Death + Biology Death + Technology Monuments + Memorials

Keeping Your Dead Pets Alive Forever

Amy Finkel, Director

We humans love our pets. A lot. We love them so much that when they die the grieving process can become overwhelming. Over the last ten years the number of companies and funeral homes offering pet memorialization services, products, and bereavement literature have ballooned.

Meg came across the following in-development documentary on pet loss. The film, Furever, has got chops so we’re throwing its director, Amy Finkel, a Death Ref bone.

Ok. Enough with the bad metaphors and puns.

The Death Reference Desk has been running dead pet stories for a long time and we are more than happy to add this one to the list.

Two words: Freeze Drying.

Furever is a documentary exploration of pet preservation, or, the processes by which a deceased pet is professionally conserved. I have shot forty hours of footage of one technique, freeze-drying, which produces disarmingly lifelike results. This seemingly bizarre practice offers a unique perspective on mortality, grief, and mourning. The concepts investigated in Furever will disarm anyone who might want to dismiss the subjects as mere oddball caricatures.


Furever contributes to the dialogue on death and grief, bewildering aspects of the human condition, begun by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, dovetailing with the growing trend toward pet anthropomorphism, and the anguish that befalls the owners of deceased pets. Many dismiss or judge pet preservationists for being “unbalanced,” yet the assorted rituals in place for deceased human loved ones, while precious to those who practice them, often seem odd or unusual to outsiders.

Death + Biology Death + Disaster Death + Humor

Bye Bye Birdies

The recent spate of mass bird deaths has taken flight across the Internet—a literal and figurative tweeting and Twittering—and dare I say crowing—on a large scale. You could say it’s causing quite a “flap.” Reported by the Associated Press, the Daily Mail and others, masses of birds have been mysteriously falling from the sky in the U.S and Europe, dead on arrival. Red-winged blackbirds, starlings and turtle doves have been the victims in these rains of death. In addition, reports of mass fish deaths in the American South and crab die-offs in England have also joined the fray. But what of it? Are these the fabled “end times”? Media hype? Or something else?

Speculation has run rampant, but according to the U.S. Geological Survey, die-offs such as these happen more frequently than is reported—but, because of instant communication now possible via the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle—people (the media included) are trying to connect the dots and perhaps make connections where there is none. The USGS calmly says,

While large-scale bird die-offs are always a concern, they are not that unusual. USGS records list at least 16 events involving more than 1,000 black birds or starlings over the past 30 years. The majority of these cases were poison related, although weather-related trauma was also the cause of some events

Although no definitive explanation has yet been found—and may never be—the speculation and hype has been staggering. It has even been dubbed “aflockalypse” by some (!) Check out the nifty Google Map tracing mass animal deaths worldwide that a lone blogger put together. Depending on your tendencies, you can allay, or perhaps heighten? your fears, by reading the Black Bird die-off Investigation page here. Oh, and there’s even a USGS webpage called the New and Ongoing Wildlife Mortality Rates Nationwide. Here, you can keep track of reported events involving “a network of partners across the country work on documenting wildlife mortality events in order to provide timely and accurate information on locations, species and causes of death.” Who knew?

We usually stick to the strictly human side of death here at DRD. Sure, we have the occasional drunken elk rampage story, (i.e. Man vs. Beast). Really, the interest for me is more about how we, as a society, are reacting to these bird deaths rather than the deaths themselves. But before you run down to your public library looking for a King James bible to check out (don’t bother because they’re all stolen of course) or borrow a copy of Evan Almighty (we can only hope these are all stolen) take a deep breath and do a little fact checking. Maybe a viewing of The Birds is in order? For now, invest in a sturdy umbrella.

*No animals were harmed in the writing of this post. However, black(bird) humor was employed at least a once or twice.

Death + Biology Death + Technology Death Ethics

The (Death) Singularity is Near

Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday
Ashlee Vance, The New York Times (June 13, 2010)
The Singularity movement sees a time when human beings and machines will merge and overcome illness and perhaps death.

The tagline for this New York Times article is only partially correct. The Singularity movement and another group called the Transhumanists see death as a curable disease. Not perhaps. Not maybe. Absolutely fixable.

It’s interesting to see this (long) article pop-up since the proponents of the Singularity have been making their case for at least a decade now. If not longer. In a nutshell, the ‘Singularity’ will be a moment when humans and computer technology seamlessly coalesce, creating a whole new species of human. The entire end result is part of evolution according to Ray Kurzweil, the featured Singularian in the article.

I hieee-spectrum-technological-singularity-thumbave been intrigued for some time by the arguments Kurzweil and others make, especially when it comes to lifespan. A number of Singularity believers talk about 700 year lifespans and/or the outright elimination of death. I don’t ever discount these ideas out of hand. It is truly impossible to predict where human biology will end up fifty or one hundred years from now. So, I actually think that eliminating death or greatly expanding lifespan might be possible.

The question to really ask is: why would anyone want to live 700 years?

Then you have the problem of age. If a person lives to be 700 years old, is their body also that old? The only way extended lifespan works is by either greatly reducing aging OR transplanting a person’s entire consciousness (including memories) into a younger body.

These futuristic scenarios are sometimes referred to as the Death of Death.

Humans are a long ways from accomplishing any of these biological makeovers but one thing is certain: a lot of people will die trying.