Check out a great thread by author (and attorney) Alexander Palacio:
It’s odd that the extremes of materialism (in the philosophical sense, the belief that only the material is real and of consequence) end up in the same place as Gnostic heresy in denying the importance and reality of the body.
According to the materialist, you ARE your body, there is metaphysically no separate spiritual “soul” that ascends to heaven or goes anywhere else. Thus one would think that the body is, therefore, the only thing that can be sacred because it is all humans are. However, the disregard for the dead body shows that any idea of the individual person, to the extent that it exists at all, is merely a temporary fluence of matter, a state, not an object. The evidence for this state is the evidence of life: breath, consciousness, movement, etc., and when it ceases, “you” cease.
The implication of making the person a temporary state of matter, really a series of actions, is that it means that the person does not exist. “You” are not a real “thing” because you are a selection of actions. The body is reduced to a shell that the action inhabits, effectively the same belief shared by most strains of Gnostics.
I realize, reflecting on the gross practices of body disposal, that our society is totally subsumed in the materialist mindset – if it isn’t objective, it isn’t real or valuable – and that religiously most Christians have adopted gnostic positions based on those materialist precepts. My father was a good man and very religious as far as evangelical protestants go, but even he disregarded the body as a meaningless shell. His dog tags said “no preference” because (as he explained to me) he felt it didn’t matter at all what happened to his body after death. It could be thrown into a woodchipper for all he cared; he didn’t need it anymore.
The danger of disregarding the body is the danger of gnostic heresy in general: believing that Christ was not human, that he didn’t have a body, or that his incarnation and physical suffering were illusory or meaningless, or that there was no resurrection of the body. This was a major controversy in the early church and one which continues to plague us. If the body is meaningless, why did God give us one? It would be better if we were just souls, not condemned to endure the toils of the body. We can quickly fall into a belief in dualistic gods like the Cathars, etc., where our bodies are not only meaningless but bad because it is through our bodies that we experience suffering and death. It would stand to reason, therefore, that the God of the old testament was also bad, or at least misguided, a demiurge that created us as bodily beings in error or in spite of the “real” non-physical world.
Such traps have further implications for the faith. What is the point of communion? Why burn incense? Why baptize? Why make icons, statues, or altars? Why fast? These things must do nothing since God is not physical, and “you” are not physical. In fact, the strain of Evangelical Protestantism I was raised in (and my father, for the most part, believed in) didn’t believe any of these rituals were “real.” There were, at best symbolic and had no effect; at worst, anathema since they were “idolatrous.” You end up in practical Gnosticism, or practical atheism, which the body trade shows are very close indeed.
When people donate their bodies to science, they think it is for some noble use, and only when their loved ones find out the horrors their remains have been subjected to do people recoil. Burning a body to ashes and spreading it on the beach is fine, but chopping it to pieces and sewing it to other bodies is too far. To me, this means ultimately that despite the gnostic hoops people jump through, they know that the body is something special. A person is more than just a memory residing in those whose energy states continue; a person is real. Their bodies should be treated with dignity and respect, as we should treat the living with dignity and respect.
There are some moments in the recent show Cyberpunk: Edgerunners that show the tension between these two extremes. David Martinez, the protagonist, suffers the death of his mother, partly due to poor medical care, and her ashes are delivered to him by a vending machine. Yet, despite the society that dehumanizes the individual, David does not discard her remains. In fact, he feels bound to fulfill some part of her desires, as well as the goals of a friend he makes along the way who also dies. The struggle is between the nihilism of total materialism, where an individual’s humanity can be replaced by mechanical objects in the Ship of Theseus fashion, and the continuing spirit of a person as more than a temporary state of vibrating matter. Ultimately, that is the tragedy of the story as well because the faceless, mechanical world cares nothing for the memory of the dead, just as it cared nothing for them while there were temporarily “alive.” The most permanent thing you can hope for is a drink named after you in the appropriately named “Afterlife” bar.
You can find more themes on the body, spirit, and mortality in my newest book, out now: