My daughter demanded I draw another comic, so I’m sharing with you this macabre moment of innocent deduction, which invited some reflection on why we care so deeply for the bodies of our dead.
This lead to discussions trying to explain (to my then four year old) how humans hold bodies of our own kind in a special kind of regard, what we do and don’t do with them, and what having a funeral entails – a tradition that in one form or another, goes back thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years. I would think it may have a lot to do with how intensely social we are as a species, combined with our deepened perception of our own mortality.
Julie Beck’s piece over at the Atlantic reports on a book about why we care for the bodies of our dead:
This is the tension surrounding how humans treat dead bodies. What makes a person a person is gone from their bodies upon death, and there’s really no logical reason why we should care for the empty container—why we should embalm it, dress it up, and put it on display, or why we should collect its burnt remnants in an urn and place it on the mantle.
Honouring the dead, in many ways, has more to do with the living than the dead. We need to come to terms with the sudden void in place of an important connection. As Beck so fittingly puts it in the piece in Atlantic: “Even if physical death is quick and final, social death takes time.”
Humans are one of the few species who care much for their dead – but we aren’t alone. Elephants, dolphins, and chimpanzees (maybe even giraffes and western scrub jays), which all also have complex social behaviours, have reportedly shown some signs of similar grieving and honouring of the bodies of their dead. From the Death Rituals in the Animal Kingdom over at BBC:
While the details vary from tradition to tradition, the pattern is undeniable: humans seem to find value in guarding or watching the bodies of the deceased for some period of time following death.
But as we are beginning to discover, these behaviours may transcend species boundaries as well.
Rest in peace, dear aunt Pepper.
For more science-with-kids comics, see Bacterial Cutting Board, Getting a Feel for Physics or When Scientists’ Kids Fight. If you would like to discuss the topic below, you are very welcome, but please take note of my Commenting policy.
In a nutshell:
- Be respectful.
- Back up your claims with evidence.