Illustration by Gareth Damian Martin
“And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence” (Daniel 12:2).
Fernando de Jesus Diaz Beato is sat rigid in an ornate wooden chair. The glazed look in his eyes could be explained away by the cigar balanced between his fingers.
The truth of the matter is that he is dead. On March 3rd this year, he was shot 15 times in the Villa Carolina neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His family decided to have him embalmed and presented at his funeral as if he were still alive—leg casually balanced on the other, hands softly clasped, baseball cap, glasses, sports gear, and eyes open.
In the Middle Ages, Fernando’s cadaver would have been known as a transi, a reminder of death—except Fernando’s flesh isn’t rotting. His preserved body, made to look as living as ever, speaks to how we in the 21st century try to deny death, reverse it, and slow its pre- and post-effects. We are perhaps no more terrified of dying than any other generations before us, but now more than ever, there’s an urgent need for self-preservation. It may be that we are vainer, being as we are, surrounded by images and opportunities that fill our minds with ideas of self-improvement. The “selfie” is the greatest icon of our age. Technology lets us precisely measure our calorie count, erase wrinkles, replace limbs, even transplant entire faces. It’s no surprise that tech billionaires are injecting the blood of younger people in a desperate bid to stop the aging process—a revealing inversion of Isaac Asimov’s novelette The Bicentennial Man (1976), in which a robot injects human blood to make itself mortal. Technology is our saving grace; we all aspire to be androids, humans minus the fat. Yet, what technology cannot do, at least not yet, is stop death from coming. It feels like we are so close—if only you could live another 80 years, perhaps you could live forever.
Back in 2007, Aubrey de Grey, the Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation, gave a controversial TED talk on how we might go about ending the aging process. Grey proposed that the first people who will live to 1,000 years old have been born, and it’s all due to ideas such as stem cell rejuvenation—the cells of younger people used to revitalize the elderly. “It’s a repair and maintenance approach to extending the functional life span of a human body,” Grey told The Washington Post. “It’s just like maintaining the functional life span of a classic car, or a house.” In May this year, two biotech companies were granted ethical permission to take on 20 dead patients and attempt to bring them back to life. The joke here would be to compare the doctors in charge of this project to Herbert West in Re-Animator (1985), but it would be no joke. According to The Telegraph, the patients will have stem cells injected into their brains, be given a “cocktail of peptides,” and also be subject to laser and nerve stimulation techniques. “This represents the first trial of its kind and another step towards the eventual reversal of death in our lifetime,” said Dr. Ira Pastor, the CEO of Bioquark Inc. It’s the start of the death of death. Though, to commit to such a narrative would be to ignore the rockstar of the undead, Jesus Christ.
the idea of life beyond the body
After his supposed resurrection nearly 2000 years ago, Jesus has kept us waiting for his Second Coming. The Nicene Creed prophesized his return way back in the year 325: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end… We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Since then, religions have formed, forked, and fell out, interpreting scripture to produce different beliefs, yet many of them still hold out for a profane reappearance of Christ. But it seems that others have had enough of waiting. The Pew Research Center found that the number of Americans who identify as atheist doubled between 2007-2014. And not only is atheism gaining ground, but science is looking to beat Jesus to the punch by working out how to reanimate the dead itself—exposing the magician’s trick so that we may all eventually walk the Earth ourselves for a second and maybe third time too.
When Jesus has returned before (if you accept the idea), notably, it wasn’t as a ghost. In the Gospel of Luke, he eats with his disciples, and has them touch his body to prove that he isn’t spectral, but made of flesh and bones. The resurrection of his physical body is proof of miracles, proof of God’s power, and acted as a conduit to the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s why worship of Christ is idealized as his dead form upon a crucifix. Hence, over the years since this story, our notions of life beyond death have primarily consisted of corporeal preservation and resurrection—stories of the body repossessed. But recent thinking, brought on by the immaterial intelligence of technology, has considered life on different terms. We are starting to lose the precious ties to our sacred form, and to commit to the idea of life beyond the body—we’ve even began to orchestrate it. Our arrival at this point can be seen as entirely cultural. It is the offspring of our utter belief in tech, our worship of data, machines, cloud storage, the lot. But it can also be understood as the natural progression of thanatological thought, which dates back thousands of years.
For the past 1,000 years or more, Western thought on the cadaver has been dominated by the Christian church. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 came the subsequent period now known as Antiquity, which cultivated the “cult of saints,” part of which was a belief in the grave as a link between Heaven and Earth. The tombs of saints were dressed up with marble pillars and golden candelabras as a way to represent the Milky Way. The bodies of the saints were believed to be a physical connection to the cosmic realms, having moved closer to God in death. This created a hierarchy among the dead. Bones weren’t just bones; some were more important than others. And with this came pilgrimage, as people would travel to basilicas and holy grounds to be closer to the saints, their bodies the locus of desire. But what these special dead represented was twofold: a saint could protect you when alive, but also guide your spiritual journey in death. Hence, it was considered important to be as near to a saint as possible when you were buried—the distance often determined by one’s status and wealth. Practice was less important than proximity.
Later, around the 7th century, when the first medieval Anglo-Saxon churches were built, a more specific necrogeography was established, laying down superstitions that would inform burial practice from then on. As these churches were made facing East—towards Jerusalem and the Second Coming of Christ—so too were the graves. A proper Christian burial around this time demanded that bodies should face East, be located in consecrated ground, lay on their backs (so as to face Heaven), and have their graves aligned straight. Proper burial is especially important in Jewish eschatology as it teaches that the dead shall one day rise again from their mortal remains. It originates from the doctrine of the Messiah—Jesus was buried before he resurrected, and so his followers should do the same. On top of that, burial is seen as a Biblical command that originates from what God told Adam: “For dust you are, and to dust you will return.” As such, the body is considered to be on loan from the Creator, and must be put back into the earth from where it came once it has expired. To deny a body a formal Jewish burial is to dishonor and humiliate both it and God. The body must also be whole (cremation and embalming aren’t allowed) and be buried as close to the time of death as possible, preferably within 24 hours. Religion put the deceased into the hands of a higher power and in the process turned it into a sacred vessel, not to be tampered with.
Customs around Christian burial and funerary practice were upheld by the wealthy bishops of the Church until at least the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. At this time, iconoclasts raged against the authority of the Catholic Church, challenging its dogma, and demanding a redistribution of religious and political power. Idolatry was dismantled and worship of the holy dead was revised after the discovery of a number of counterfeit remains—the preserved brain of St. Peter was found to be a pumice stone, for instance. But Thomas W. Laqueur notes in The Work of the Dead (2015) that “[d]ead bodies did not lose their aura even if they lost their institutional and theological support.” It wasn’t until the 18th century and the upheaval of industrialism that the dead body would be seen under a radically different light.
European cities were growing to vast numbers, attracting more of the living to their walls, and with it, more of the dead. Churchyards built within city walls were straining under the numbers and the corpse was making itself known by a rancid smell; a presumably toxic miasma. George “Graveyard” Walker, a 19th century London surgeon who petitioned for the removal of foul-smelling cadavers in the city, described graveyards as “laboratories of malaria… so many centres of infection, constantly giving off noxious effluvia.” The urban dead were becoming a health issue. The solution around Europe was to extract unclean bodies from the cramped holy grounds and move them to a more spacious and sanitary landscape, away from the Church. In Paris, bodies were moved into underground catacombs while burials inside city walls from then on were prohibited. Corpses became distanced from the living and from God, the stench of rot and the sheer number of them leading to their exclusion from society. People still respected the dead during the 18th century, but they also agreed that their bodies were gross, to be kept away. As the industrial machines rumbled on, churning black smoke into the air, the technology it brought continued to darken society’s thoughts on its deceased counterparts. It started to unhinge people from their firm religious beliefs, in turn weakening the sacredness of the body.
a body that is without God
It was in the 19th century that science fiction as we recognize it arrived with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Frankenstein was wholly sacrilegious: it proposed a rejection of God’s miracle of life, that humans can create a living body and resurrect the dead, all without the holy tools that He uses. It follows Victor Frankenstein as he creates his infamous monster out of various body parts stolen from morgues and cemeteries. The ‘miracle’ that grants Frankenstein such power is galvanism, which was discovered by accident in 1790 by Italian physicist Luigi Galvani, who passed electricity through a dead frog’s legs, reanimating them. His nephew, Giovanni Aldini, took this discovery further to see if electric could be used to bring dead people back to life. While Aldini was unsuccessful, the idea gripped the people of the early 1800s—Shelley merely connected the dots, putting into words what this scientific discovery could mean for man’s relationship to God.
In Frankenstein, the titular scientist envisions himself as a god empowered by science: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” The fact that Shelley has Frankenstein refer to his reanimated corpse as a “new species” is telling. This monster, created by man’s technology, is the start of a new concept, one that can be called the ‘unreal body’—a body that is without God, and therefore removed from the same reality and practices that bind our bodies according to religion. This is a concept that is repeated throughout science fiction, from the voodoo-resurrected bodies of a Haitian tribe in W.B. Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929), to the cloned bodies of A. E. Van Vogt’s 1945 novel The World of Null-A, and the alien duplicates of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The ultimate form is the zombie: risen from their graves without God’s permission, our stories around them talk of apocalypse; a world ruled by unreal bodies is one ruled without God—it is the end times. We must destroy the zombie for our benefit, or if you’re Dr. Logan in Day of the Dead (1985), experiment on them so that they become docile, perhaps turned into perfect soldiers. As quantum theory developed throughout the 20th century, so too did our trust in science, and with it an acceptance that tampering with the body was not only acceptable but a requisite for human and scientific progress. This was helped along by famous scientists, such as Einstein, who made public his doubts on religious thought and the plausibility of God, and in doing so encouraged a dichotomy to emerge between science and religion. The shift in the perception of the corpse from a holy container to vile fleshy matter accelerated.
Before Jesus Christ, there was Diogenes the Cynic (412-323 BC), who ordered for his deceased body to be thrown over the city walls and left to the beasts. This might be an unthinkable commitment to us now; to abandon all care and love for the fleshy capsule we spend our entire lives in, to neglect it once our sense has left, to treat it as if any other matter here on Earth. How a concept so aged can seem so radical today is the result of thousands of years of human culture—a curse frequently cited in Mesopotamian texts (from the beginning of written history around 3100 BC) was: “May the earth not receive your corpses.” Nowadays, we are told to invest in the health of our bodies through basic hygiene and dieting, and also contribute to the betterment of society by submitting our cadavers to medical research—our bodies are useful after death, not to be discarded. In the chasm of time that sits between us and Diogenes, a tide of knowledge and cultural rituals have been established: burial rites, funeral procedures, the myths of zombie fiction, and so on. It’s this that separates current society from the Cynic. Diogenes, as Laqueur writes, was the “great spokesman for the dead body as fundamentally profane, unenchanted, a part of nature, mere matter, carrion.”
Diogenes was a major opposition to religious thought for a long time. That was still the case even a hundred years ago. But more recently that has changed, and signs now point towards a future in which we loop back to the kind of thinking that would see us throwing our bodies into a ditch. The kind of research that biotech companies are currently doing, reattempting the efforts made by Aldini—to reanimate the dead body—seems to maintain the dichotomy between religion and science that was hammered into public thought a couple hundred years ago. The biotech view of the body is one of a strictly biological construct: needles and scalpels are pushed through skin in an attempt at unholy resurrection, dishonoring years of religious thought. These are unreal bodies: like Frankenstein’s monster, they are without God, unblessed in death. But the body is still important, central even, to this line of work. And so more directly dangerous to the fate of the physical body is the concept of the virtual body—it is this that may lead to a resurgence in Diogenesian thought.
The dead live on through electronic means, divorced from their body
One of the early signs of the virtual body finding a place around the dead is seen in a modification to the mitzvot (commandments) of Jewish tradition. One of the most important of these teaches that the family and those close to the dead must attend the funeral in person, regardless of how short a notice they are given—it’s a symbolic service and considered an act of love to place the dead into the earth. But modern life can make funeral attendance difficult, and as all family should be present at a Jewish funeral, compromises have been made in recent years. At the Star of David Funeral Home in West Babylon, New York, those who can’t make it to a funeral in person can request to watch it via webcam. “Today’s technology offers friends and family who, for one reason or another are unable to attend, the ability to ‘virtually’ participate in the funeral service,” reads the funeral home’s website. People can request a webcast of the ceremony and forward a service number and password to the absent attendees so they can watch from anywhere around the world, provided they have internet access. What would have been abhorred hundreds of years ago has now become acceptable, pushed along by the affordances that technology allows.
Virtual funeral guests are one of the first steps to having virtual corpses. It used to be the case that the strict purpose of a funeral was to bury a physical body. The point of the ceremony was to ensure that the body would descend into the earth with God’s blessing. At a Christian funeral, church bells are rung, psalms are recited, and the body is cleaned and dressed for the occasion. Medieval rituals would also involve placing a form of Absolution on the body, as well as a monetary offering that it was hoped would benefit the dead person’s soul, often in the form of coins placed over the eyes. At wakes, just as at funerals, the act of loved ones gathering around the body is a staged reminder that the person’s death is a social event and not an isolated tragedy. The dead body is proclaimed, either to God and the heavens, or to the people in the person’s direct social group. Although it is lifeless, the body has been blessed and farewells are said, and should God command its resurrection, it will be ready. But now, body presence on such occasions can be replaced with the virtual body. With holographic imaging technology, it’s possible for people to appear at their own funeral, seemingly alive and in 3D. Different from video eulogies, which project the deceased on a flat screen, holographic images take up physical space, projecting a facsimile of the deceased’s physical form in the correct dimensions, animations, and speech patterns. You might recall that Michael Jackson and Tupac Shakur, among others, have given posthumous performances via the use of a “hologram.” The dead live on through electronic means, divorced from their body.
For a few years now, the concept of a cyber funeral has been building across the internet. It started around 2009 when companies such as Basic Funerals allowed for people to choose caskets and burial services online, with the aim to make the process as automated as possible. Arranging a funeral became as simple as shopping for clothes online: you just needed to know the correct size. The biggest advantage of moving funeral arrangements online is the money saved. Basic Funerals doesn’t need to pay for business premises or extra staff, which allows them to “offer services at about half the price of traditional funeral homes,” according to a Globe and Mail article from 2011. The next stage up from this is to move the funeral itself online—why bother gathering people in a physical space around a body when you can all attend a virtual room and share grief there? Indeed, players of Second Life (2003) and MMORPGs such as Final Fantasy XIV (2013) hold vigils, place virtual gravestones, and hold virtual funerals for online players who have died in real life, outside of the game.
While these acts are rare, much more common are instances of shared online grief. Earlier this year, when David Bowie died, many took to the internet to voice their feelings, and to get comfort and indulge discussion with likeminded fans. We perform this online ritual when practically anyone famous dies, but we also do it for those who are not—every year, my mother posts photos of my late brother on Facebook on the anniversary of his death. The people we mourn online don’t even have to be real: there’s a whole website dedicated to letting people place flowers at the virtual graves of dead Game of Thrones characters. As outlined in the introduction to the collection Dying, Death, and Grief in an Online Universe (2012), the internet population has assembled its own “thanatological death system,” as you can hire a virtual grief counsellor, take to online forums to discuss death and suicide, and conduct virtual rituals with several people without needing to worry so much about time zones. We don’t need the real world to acknowledge death or perform grief. Still, we aren’t at the point that we can completely let go of that thousands-year-old tradition, the burial of the physical corpse, but we’re heading that way, and it is the way of Diogenes. If we’re mourning people in virtual spaces and grieving over their virtual bodies then the logic that follows is that their body isn’t needed for religious or social means after death, and so it can effectively be thrown away—but, more likely, cremated or tested on by scientists. Given that the world’s cemeteries can only stock so many deceased, and are running out of space, it would be beneficial for us to lose our sentimentality around traditional burial procedures.
Death has also become more of a performance with the advent of electronic technologies, especially in our digital age. The Victorians refined the art of death photography, in which they would take family photographs with awkwardly posed cadavers—the final snapshot of a loved one whose life was taken early, a memento mori. With film came the ability to record death, either real or faked, and it could be replayed over and over to one’s own morbid enjoyment. This, of course, is the motivation behind the legendary snuff films that arrived with VHS technology. Serial killers would record themselves maiming and torturing their victims, and perhaps even the final act itself, then the videotape could be filed away for later viewing. Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski, a mafia hitman who killed hundreds, admitted to tying many of his victims down so that they’d be eaten alive by rats. He left a camera behind to capture the entire ordeal on Super 8 film, and then would watch it back later to try to understand the feeling it gave him—being a diagnosed psychopath, he was incapable of feelings, which is why he was so successful over the years. With videogames we all become killers: able to recycle the bodies of characters as we run them into spikes and bullets, constantly improving our performances on the back of a dozen deaths. And with online video services such as YouTube and Twitch, people have taken to staging suicides for an active audience to watch along live. In May this year, a 19-year-old woman threw herself in front of a train in France, killing herself, all while livestreaming it on Periscope. As Bryan Menegus of Gizmodo notes, this isn’t the first time it’s happened: in 2010, a 21-year-old Swede called Marcus Jannes took a large dose of painkillers and then hung himself in front of his webcam. Now, with virtual reality, we are effectively surrendering our physical status altogether, trading it for a virtual one. It seems fitting that our body’s initial reaction is to puke, as if in revolt. The virtual body, as with Shelley’s unreal body in Frankenstein, is separated from the laws of religion and reality, and as such becomes a site of gross deprivation and abuse. Perhaps in hundreds of years time—or a lot sooner—the virtual body will reign supreme, and we’ll swap it for our physical bodies, which we will then leave to degenerate out of neglect. It might be the answer to our strive to live forever.
During the 19th century, Reform Judaism rejected the doctrine of resurrection to instead favor the immortality of the soul—mentions of resurrection in Reform prayer books have been deleted or reinterpreted. It has caused another strain to form in religious thought, one that sees beyond the need for the body after death entirely, and more recently has moved towards discrediting its use among the living too. This has led to what is perhaps an even more radical area of research into human sustainability than that of the biotech companies. It’s one that actually sees science and technology working in tandem with religion. The result is a number of new religions that have emerged, uniting under the banner of “transreligion,” referring to their utter belief in pursuing transhumanism. They don’t have much use for a dead weight.
Members of the Church of Perpetual Life (founded in 2013) in Hollywood, Florida call themselves Immortalists. Rather than relying on unseen miracles to preserve their bodies and souls, these transhumanists place their faith in artificial intelligence, cryogenics, and virtual reality. “Following the prophetic writings of Nikolai Fedorov, a founding tenet of this church is that indefinitely extended healthy lifespans are not only desirable and attainable, but what humanity was destined to accomplish,” reads the Church’s description. This sentiment is at the heart of pretty much every transreligion but their methodologies is where they differ. The split comes in how committed they are to embracing a posthuman future. As Anthony Cuthbertson of IBTimes discovered, VanDeRee, one of the ministers of the Church of Perpetual Life, wears a tag around his wrist that contains the instructions necessary to preserve his body cryogenically should he drop dead. Immortality, in his view, is a process of deep freezing the physical body—he’s not yet ready to commit to Diogensian practice. At least, not until he sees some results that prove machines can successfully sustain our consciousness.
But another transreligion is prepared to discard its flesh right now in favor of embracing machines—it is working towards posthumanism. “Heaven could be a virtual reality world hosted on a computer server somewhere,” Gabriel Rothblatt told IBTimes. Rothblatt is the son of the Terasem Movement founder and serves as one of its pastors. The Terasem Movement has been preaching a belief in the possibility of digital immortality since 2004. They host a server at their headquarters that supposedly contains “personality profiles, biographical information and memories in the form of photos and other media,” according to IBTimes. While nothing much can be done with these “mindfiles” right now, Terasem belief is that advances in artificial intelligence will mean that the people they represent could effectively be maintained perpetually through the medium of software. This isn’t as wild as it sounds: it can be considered to fall in line with the thinking of Reform Judaism, which as said focuses on the immortality of the soul, not the body. It should be no surprise, then, that many of the Terasem’s members are practising Christians and Jews, who are informed by today’s technological capabilities and see more practical ways to ensure the soul lives on. “We are laying the foundations of the technology that would build worlds like the Matrix,” Herman Narula, co-founder and CEO of Improbable, told IBTimes. The technology harnesses the power of hundreds or even thousands of cloud computing servers to create detailed, dynamic worlds on an enormous scale. For Terasem, it would mean that “heaven isn’t in the clouds, heaven is the cloud.”
There’s also The Turing Church, whose motto is “Hacking religion, awakening technology.” The name is a play on the Church-Turing thesis of 1936, which is a computability theory that delves into big philosophical questions such as whether the universe is a form of computer—in the case of the procedurally generated universe of No Man’s Sky, that is exactly the case. The Turing Church as a whole is less about direct action than the other two churches and more about sharing and advancing discourse on the matter of immortality and technology’s role in facilitating it. Its members hold regular online discussion groups and write articles that further the collective’s line of thinking. It isn’t dominated by any religious group and, in fact, welcomes people of all religions to participate. It even opens its arms to atheists, explaining that the Cosmist point of view can help nonbelievers come to terms with the void of death: “our reality may be a ‘simulation’ computed by entities in a higher-level reality, who may choose to copy those who die in our reality to another reality. Contemplating these possibilities is my way to cope with grief, I hope you will find your own way.”
our humanity will only serve as an unwanted anchor
Committing to posthumanism is to turn some of our wilder science-fiction stories into fact. To explain the difference, transhumanism is the process of enhancing and transforming the human form. Anyone with a pacemaker could be considered a representation of transhumanist efforts. Whereas posthumanism is the next logical step: the human brain or consciousness removed from its natural home and placed in a non-human body (whether physical or not). If it becomes possible to transfer human consciousness between bodies then the disregard shown for the unreal body and the virtual body would surely increase further. Imagine if you could, right now, extract your mind from your body, and then use a 3D printer to create another body for it to inhabit. How long would it be before older bodies were discarded as nonchalantly as throwing away rotting fruit? Not long, is the proposition—imagine a market of human bodies where you can purchase a new model to replace the one you failed to keep fit.
Theorizing on such a society, Peter Moons writes in his paper “God and Man in the Machine” that religious concepts that have served for thousands of years would lose relevance. “For Christians, Posthumanism and its version of life everlasting would mean, firstly, no death, but also no ‘resurrection’ nor a ‘new body’ from this event,” Moons writes. This imagined society is one where sin can be absolved easily by shedding the dirty body in favor of a new, clean one. The marriage ceremony’s recital of love everlasting—’til death do us part—is no longer a commitment of 80 or so years, as per the current human lifespan, but for an unfathomable eternity. Then there’s also the challenges this society presents to Heaven and Hell, as well as the Hindu concept of samsara (rebirth), given that no soul or spirit can ascend, descend, or be reborn into a new body, as it never fully passes beyond the membrane of mortality and into death—the gateway to these religious concepts. And so: the burial of a corpse couldn’t possibly have any greater meaning in such a future if it becomes the equivalent of a snake shedding its skin.
We, as humans of the early 21st century, are tied to Earth by our flesh. As we begin to leave what was once our terrestrial prison, propelled by rocket fuel to new planets, perhaps encountering new species and other intelligent life forms, our humanity will only serve as an unwanted anchor. The tenets we hold dear right now, groomed into form by our existence on Earth, will have to find new shape, adapting to our increased perception of life beyond the Kármán line—where it’s not gods that are found, but an entire zone of death. New centers of gravity will pull not only our bodies towards them but also our thinking on established cultural practices. We once thought we would rise to become angels or undead soldiers trained in the labs of necroscientists. Now the options have expanded to include existence as undying, hyper-connected brains and inorganic mindfiles. We live in uncertain times, not knowing whether, in our lifetime, science and technology will find a way to keep the body alive beyond its expiry, or if we will transcend the body entirely. Whatever the case, the certainty we’re moving towards is that we can no longer be content with merely burying the dead body. It is much too alive with possibility.