Meet the people who want to live — and keep their wealth — forever

By

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling

Blog author Matt Hongoltz-Hetling

Published December 21, 2020|15 min read

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On visiting days, Paul Hagen takes a break from his duties as an alderman for the city of Waupaca, Wisconsin, and drives south, skirting the lower edges of Lake Michigan in Chicago and continuing more than 500 miles to Clinton Township, a suburb of Detroit.

It’s a long journey, but Hagen believes time is on his side.

Just off the interstate, he pulls into the parking lot of an industrial park, where other individuals and families are invariably getting out of vehicles with out-of-state license plates, stretching to relieve the aches of their own long journeys.

Hagen then approaches a building with plate glass windows, cookie-cutter shrubbery sensibilities, and brown lettering that identifies it as the Cryonics Institute.

Inside, Hagen tours a room full of metal cylinders, each one so tall that the tops can only be accessed with stepladders. They are white, decorated only with the CI logo and website address.

The staff calls them cryostats.

Each year, Hagen approaches one of the monoliths, raps on the outside. His knocking creates minute vibrations that travel across the dark, cold bath inside, tiny shockwaves breaking against the bulwark of his father’s inert form. The other cryostats in the room hold more bodies suspended in darkness, each one a CI client who could, just possibly, come back to life.

Hagen has come to the CI every year since his father died 12 years ago. Like most cryonicists, he doesn’t know whether he will ever hold his father in his arms again. But he has hope.

“Dad,” he says. “I’m here.”

An act of speculation or hope

Before he died, the elder Hagen arranged for his body to be preserved at subzero temperatures, until such time as medical science advances to the point that he can be revived.

He’s one of at least 4,000 people, mostly American men, who are pushing back against their own mortality with a last-ditch plan that could take centuries to play out.

Preserving your body for a potential ticket to the future can be affordable, considering you’re paying for immortality — the Michigan-based Cryonics Institute charges a flat fee of $28,000 for eternal maintenance of a member’s body (as compared to a $7,640 average funeral cost, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, plus a few thousand more for a cemetery plot and tombstone). CI’s only American competitor, Alcor Life Extension Foundation, charges $200,000 to house clients in its Scottsdale, Arizona facility. Both organizations are nonprofits, and Alcor funds a multimillion-dollar endowment that provides for the costs of storing its deceased clients.

People typically pay CI and Alcor by naming them as beneficiaries of a life insurance policy. The price point means that, for the young, funding a life insurance policy to provide for cryonic preservation can cost less than five bucks a month.

“It’s not at all burdensome,” said Hagen, a senior financial specialist for the state of Wisconsin who regularly advises veterans on managing their benefits. The 55-year-old, who intends for his own body to be preserved in the same facility as his father’s, knows preservation is within the financial reach of many Americans — but does that mean it’s a good investment?

Critics of cryonics accuse CI and Alcor of bilking their clients with a pseudo-scientific brand of hucksterism, and the Society for Cryobiology formally regards it as “an act of speculation or hope, not science.” Some argue that reviving organs — particularly the brain — will simply never be possible.

That would be bad news for several hundred legally dead people that Alcor and CI say they currently have in cryo-stasis, as well as for the several thousand more who they say have signed up to join them.

Though they are optimistic, most or all cryonicists understand that there is no guarantee of a post-death revival. But Hagen, who has seen technology advance further than he could have imagined since his 1960s boyhood, believes the path to a sci-fi-infused future is coming, perhaps this century.

“I used to think the communicator in Star Trek was the coolest thing in the world,” he said. “And now I've got something in my pocket that can do that and so much more.”

But there is a tension between cryonics researchers and the mainstream scientific community.

Dr. Glyn Stacey is president of the U.K.-based Society for Low Temperature Biology, a professional association of scientists studying the effects of low temperatures on all types of organisms and their constituent cells, tissues and organs. Stacey and his colleagues regularly publish research on topics like frog hibernation, or safe transport of organs, in peer-reviewed journals.

While stuck at his country home because of the coronavirus pandemic, Stacey took a break from writing a report on national stem cell centers to talk cryonics.

Is the idea of reviving a cryonically preserved human merely optimistic? Or does it go beyond the bounds of reason altogether?

“Never say never,” said Stacey. “Anything is possible.”

Stacey said a recent breakthrough in the ability to preserve frozen uterine tissue (which may one day help women with illnesses to achieve successful pregnancies) has demonstrated that what is possible is changing all the time.

On the other hand, he said, the issues facing the cryonicist community are daunting. The human body is made up of a massive interconnected system of different cell types, and each cell type has physical properties that will likely only respond to its own post-suspension protocol.

“What works for the liver may not work for the pancreas, or the intestines,” he said.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge will be the body part that an optimistic cryonicist is particularly attached to — the head, which Stacey points out contains a universe of complexities in tissues for the brain, eyes and other sensory gateways.

“You could recover quite a few tissues but not necessarily all of them at the same time,” he said.

And even if a human reboot were logistically possible, Stacey said, ethical standards would have to be quite different than they are today, when using stem cells for human cloning is still verboten within the scientific community.

“There would be debates about whether this is desirable, both for society and for the individual,” he said. “Who would want to come back to a society that they don’t recognize?”

Though Alcor does fund some research to advance the science, Stacey said most cryobiologists don’t affiliate themselves with cryonicists, because of ethical concerns.

Stacey said that, 30-plus years ago, colleagues considered, and rejected, working with those companies.

“They do not seem to have the tools to deliver the outcome they were selling,” Stacey said. “They don’t have the solution, before the body has been put in the freezer. It looks like they were taking money based on people’s fears.”

But most cryonicists understand that they’re not buying a guarantee — they’re buying a chance, given in good faith. The reality is, no one can say for sure whether wagering on future revival will pay off.

Retired firefighter and Cryonics Institute President Dennis Kowalski says that makes cryonic preservation a “Pascal’s Wager.” The term is associated with 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who said that the possibility of eternal salvation or damnation represented such high stakes that the relatively modest investment of living a moral life is an inherently smart bet.

“You have nothing to lose and everything to gain,” said Kowalski.

Among the uninitiated public, any cryonics discussion is typically dominated by debates over whether revival will ever be possible. But among the optimists within the community, discussions focus on more practical aspects of cryopreservation — and that means financial planning.

The gold issue

In 2007, Paul Hagen watched as staff members at St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay disconnected his father Jerry from a microwave-sized ventilator.

A hemorrhagic stroke had knocked out a third of the elder Hagen’s brain functions; without the ventilator, his lungs deflated for the last time and within moments, he was declared dead.

Legally, Jerry Hagen had become a corpse, still wearing a thin hospital gown. But Paul Hagen didn’t leave the small room.

“It was important to me,” he said, “to watch what came next.”

During his father’s final hours, a three-member medical team in Florida had been mobilized and caught a red-eye to Green Bay.

Now, the team members explained to Paul that they were in a race against time. Their goal was to reduce Jerry Hagen’s body temperature quickly, limiting the ability of natural processes to damage the cells.

Precisely three minutes after he was pronounced dead (a legally required buffer, according to the younger Hagen and Kowalski), they used a syringe to flood Jerry’s bloodstream with 30,000 units of heparin, an anticoagulant, and then lowered his body into a portable tub of ice water, taking particular care to cool his brain as quickly as possible.

Hagen watched as his father was wheeled out of the hospital room.

“I loved my dad a great deal. We were very close,” Hagen said.

As a chemical engineer, Jerry Hagen had encouraged his teen-aged son to work at his business, Cory Laboratories, which assessed site-specific pollution levels against Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Hagen still laughs at his dad’s willingness to let him climb 25-foot smokestacks unsupervised, trudge through landfills, or dip into sewers to collect pollution samples.

“There was research, a lot of research, for the reports he wrote,” Hagen said. “My dad was a smart cookie.”

But intelligence alone doesn’t prepare one for the thicket of logistical issues that face those who seek to build a second life on Earth.

Paying for preservation itself is pretty straightforward — the Hagens and Kowalski each named CI as a life insurance beneficiary to receive about $50,000, which is enough to cover their eternal maintenance, plus any additional costs that might crop up. If Kowalski or Paul Hagen die in a way that doesn’t allow for cryopreservation — say, incinerated in a fire or lost at sea — the money will go to their families instead.

The far more complicated proposition is how to fund their lives in the future, once they’ve been revived. Planning for the future is the cornerstone of all money management, but for most people, that future horizon is never more than a human lifespan away. For cryonicists, the timescale can span centuries, which means that typical money management advice doesn’t always apply.

The first problem facing people like the Hagens is that most state laws prohibit individuals from holding assets in perpetuity — the rules, in keeping with the adage “you can’t take it with you,” are designed to prevent money and other assets from being locked out of the economy.

With an uncertain time frame for a post-death revival — some guess it will take hundreds of years for science to catch up — rules against perpetuity were a major stumbling block for those who, like Jerry Hagen, hoped to enjoy a well-funded life in the future.

Though he’d put thought into solving that problem, he never arrived at an actionable solution. He told his son that he hoped future descendants would ease him through whatever transitional period was needed.

“There weren’t many options,” said Paul Hagen. “Other than going into the wilds of the UP (Michigan’s heavily forested Upper Peninsula) and burying silver and gold and leaving a map for your grandchildren to hang onto. And even then, there’s no guarantee that they won’t go dig it up.”

And the CI wouldn’t allow Jerry to sock away cash and valuables alongside his body.

“There’s a rule against having, say, a solid gold necklace,” said Hagen. “Why have that attraction to nefarious people?”

At the time of the elder Hagen’s death in 2007, that problem was plaguing many cryonicists. It’s what Mark House calls “the gold issue.”

“Here’s the problem with burying gold,” said House, speaking with practiced confidence from his well-appointed office in Becker & House, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based law firm. “It is still subject to probate. What people want to do is put Bitcoin on a flash drive. Ignore the fact that the Bitcoin may not have any value — it’s going to be subject to a probate opening it and distributing it. If you bury it in your backyard, a probate may dig it up. Those concepts don’t work well.”

And even if buried assets evaded probate, he said, the lack of oversight left them subject to the vagaries of chance.

“What if they build a building on top of your gold?”

House likes to cultivate expertise in unusual arenas. He teaches abstruse points of law at Arizona State University, and coaches Olympic-style weightlifters in his home gym.

Five years ago, House added to his unusual list of interests when he set himself to solve the gold issue for wealthy cryonicists. (House said that at some point, he will probably sign up for preservation himself, but at a healthy 47, “it doesn’t seem to be a big emergency.”)

When he tells people that he helps provide financial legal support to those seeking a form of immortality, it invariably provokes a double-take.

“It’s certainly not mainstream, but it’s no longer at the lunatic fringe,” he says. “It’s kind of eccentric.”

Naked & broke

In 2007, after Jerry Hagen’s body left the hospital, state-certified staff took him to a funeral home, then transported him to the Cryonics Institute. His body, now roughly as cold as the ice water it was submerged in, came to rest; whether it would be his final destination was unknown.

In a CI intake room, a licensed funeral director nicked his carotid arteries right above the clavicle and used cannulas to drain his heparin-thinned blood, replacing it with a proprietary “cryoprotectant.” The fluid, an antifreeze, was designed to prevent crystallization, and therefore minimized the damage that freezing would otherwise cause to Hagen’s cells.

Right around the time Hagen’s body was prepared for suspension at the institute, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation was beginning to have serious discussions about how to solve the question of long-term wealth preservation.

Marji Klima, operations manager for Alcor, offered email responses to submitted questions.

To solve the gold issue, “many members have been looking at future trusts and moving money to fund them in the future,” she wrote.

Trusts are agreements in which one person or entity holds assets for another person or entity, and is governed by mutually agreed-upon rules.

Asking a board of trustees to manage a pot of money until revival seems like a straightforward proposition, but creating a bulletproof trust is difficult, in part because of the common state rules against perpetuity.

With no clear solution, individual clients of Alcor and CI began asking their personal attorneys to create long-term trusts, which created a hodgepodge of different legal approaches. Some were charitable trusts, with the cryonicist acting as both funder and beneficiary, while others were dynasty trusts, with the cryonicist counting himself or herself among their own descendants.

House says both approaches have flaws that make them vulnerable.

“You can’t have a charitable trust that benefits one person,” he said, while with a dynasty trust, “the downside is that you have other people who have a vested interest in the trust,” and have an incentive to bleed it of its value.

In an effort to clean up and clarify the legal issues, Alcor began reaching out to attorneys in 2009. It eventually developed a model “Wealth Preservation Trust” that it sends out to members on request. House calls it “a pretty good document.”

But around 2014, he applied himself to devising a better one: the Future Income Trust.

“It’s a custom trust, a normal-looking trust with a very odd objective,” said House.

House believes that his trust, which he modifies on a case-by-case basis, is the best option available.

The rule against perpetuity in Arizona, which is home to both House and Alcor, is relatively lax. It allows assets to be held for 500 years, after which relevant trusts can be renewed for another 500 years. Arizona also allows trusts to be transferred out of the state as that 500-year mark approaches, which would allow assets to move to a more hospitable state in the 26th century.

Over the last five years, House has handled roughly 30 such trusts for Alcor clients, who pay $5,000 to establish their Future Income Trust, with a minimum funding level of $500,000.

“Some people are putting millions and millions away,” he said.

For those who can’t afford such stratospheric investments, House developed a multi-investor model that allows people to put in as little as $25,000.

“It’s stock-heavy, but it’s still a really conservative portfolio. We’re looking at a 7% return. If you have 200 years to accumulate, yes it will grow a lot.”

Despite the inhuman investment timescale, House said that clients can’t rely on the miracle of compounding interest to turn a $10 trust into a $1 billion payout. The management of that money — up to 1.5% in fees, plus taxes — can be costly, he said.

“You still have trustee fees and accounting fees. You’re still paying taxes, which is going to reduce the amount that’s going to accumulate. And you have to offset inflation.”

With so many unknowns, there is a possibility that one could wake up in the future to find themselves a paupered billionaire living among trillionaires.

Others favor a different approach, one that emphasizes enjoying one’s money in the present, rather than trying to stockpile against a future that is, to put it mildly, uncertain. From the cryonicists’ perspective, even bedrock assumptions about currency and value are suspect.

“Everything might be free in the future, if robotics are so efficient that you don’t need labor,” Kowalski mused, “I’m of the belief that I came into this world naked and broke. If I come into the future naked and broke, that will probably be okay.”

Though cryonics is a gamble with an uncertain payoff for the deceased, there may be a more immediate benefit for the bereaved.

Paul Hagen said it fundamentally changed how he grappled with the emotions that came as he attended his father’s final hours of life. He felt the pain of loss one might expect for a deathbed setting. But, with the CI team waiting in the wings, there was promise of another chapter in his father’s story. He also felt a more unusual emotion: pride.

“It was knowing those people and that equipment were on the way,” he recalled. “Knowing that, some day in the future, I might be with him again.”

Images: Nastia Kobzarenko