Dealing with Death.

I just read an article over at the NYTimes that really resonated with me.  It’s titled: “In Dealing With Death, Are Animals Just Like Us Or Pretty Much Unaware?”  The opening paragraph was absolute poetry:

Gana cluctches her lifeless baby for days.

Gana clutches her lifeless baby for days, to no avail.

As anybody who has grieved inconsolably over the death of a loved one can attest, extended mourning is, in part, a perverse kind of optimism. Surely this bottomless, unwavering sorrow will amount to something, goes the tape loop. Surely if I keep it up long enough I’ll accomplish my goal, and the person will stop being dead.

The concept of mourning as optimism is new to me, but I am intrigued, especially these days.  I wonder if mourning is an evolutionary response.  We mourn because as humans, we invest so much in our parents, who increase our survival value, or our children, who increase our replication value, or our loved ones, who can increase survival and replication value.  The article alludes to this concept but does not fully flesh it out.

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Nature shows have always enthralled me.  Especially shows about lions.  It’s been with me since childhood, when I was crawling around the house with my brother pretending to be a lion.  Obviously, their awesome killing power is what caused me to fall in love with them as a kid.  But as an adult, I’ve grown to appreciate their social arrangements, which are sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal and calculating.  Of course, everyone, including me, thinks of the similarities between lion culture and our own social experience.  However, as explained in the article, lions are very different from humans in that they eat their dead.  That image doesn’t seem very much in keeping with a lion’s characteristic nobility, but survival is survival.

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In my view, the most interesting part of the story was at the end, when the author spoke of elephants:

when African elephants were presented with an array of bones and other natural objects, the elephants spent considerably more time exploring the skulls and tusks of elephants than they did anything else, including the skulls of rhinoceroses and other large mammals…

[scientists] described… the extraordinary reactions of different elephants to the death of one of their prominent matriarchs. “One female stood over the body, rocking back and forth,” Dr. Wittemyer said in an interview. “Others raised their foot over her head. Others touched their tusks to hers. They would do their behaviors, and then leave.”

I found that incredibly moving.  Perhaps we are more like elephants than lions.

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Finally, completely unrelated to the foregoing, I came across the following quote, which I’ve been thinking about a lot lately:

Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world.

-The Talmud, Mishna. Sanhedrin

Feel free to let me know your thoughts on the article or the quote in the comments below.

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