I had always been afraid of my grandfather and now I was staring at his pale, lifeless hand inches from my face. But the very same arthritic fingers I had seen him use countless times to push tobacco inside his pipe or the hard candies he loved into his toothless mouth now just looked wrong to me. They were alien and artificial. It was as if a sculptor had taken the man I knew and placed a life-sized replica in his coffin to fool us. I had to touch him. Later I would learn that this impulse wasn’t unique to that curious ten-year-old attending his first funeral.
In fact, no lesser a figure than the famous 17th-century English parliamentarian and diarist Samuel Pepys would be similarly tempted. After attending a public dissection at London’s Barber-Surgeons Hall one evening in 1663 he enticed his host to let him see the body alone, a sailor who had been hanged for robbery. Afterwards, in the flickering candlelight, Pepys wrote in his diary what I might have expressed myself if I’d had the vocabulary:
“I did touch the body with my bare hand; it felt cold, but methought it was a very unpleasant sight.”
There is something intensely animal about our relationship with the dead. As an atheist I don’t feel particular reverence or awe at the site of a cadaver. It mostly just creeps me out. But even religious believers, those who should be comfortable with the idea that a dead body retains no trace of the person they once knew, also seem to have trouble letting go of what St. Paul called “confidence in the flesh.” In funerary observances around the world cadavers are regularly touched, kissed, washed, anointed with oils, bedaubed with ceremonial makeup, carted to sacred ground, entombed with their clothes or belongings, and generally treated in death as if their body were going on a different journey than miasmic decay.
However, as is often the case where human universals are concerned, looking to similar behaviors in other animals can be especially instructive. For example, a study released in May, 2011 in the American Journal of Primatology has captured the most complete process to date of what could only be described as mourning behavior in nonhuman primates. Katherine Cronin and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute, Gonzaga University, and the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia have documented a case where a chimpanzee mother faced what for most of us would be an unthinkable horror: the death of her child.
Video footage by Cronin et al. 2011.
The infant had been observed behaving sickly ever since birth when, on May 18, 2010, researchers saw the chimpanzee mother, Masya, carrying the dead body of her offspring. Masya continued to carry her lifeless child until the following day when observers were present to record what they saw next. The infant was placed in a clearing while Masya sat a short distance away staring at the motionless form. Researchers recorded over the next hour as the mother approached her offspring 23 times to place her hands on the child. 21 of these contacts were directed toward her offspring’s face or neck. At the end of this display Masya once again picked up her infant and carried her to the center of the social group about 20 meters away. When she laid her infant down the other group members, eight in total, proceeded to gently touch, stroke it's belly, and groom it with straw. After about twenty minutes Masya retrieved the body and walked off. The next day Masya was observed on her own, she had let go of her dead child.
This is not the first time that primates have been observed to pay special attention to a deceased member of their group. In April last year similar behaviors were observed by a chimpanzee mother in Bossou, Guinea who ended up carrying her infant’s body for a total of 27 days. The mother, Jire, regularly groomed and slept next to her infant’s body and showed distress whenever they became separated. In 2000 a chimpanzee mother in the Mahale Mountains of Tanzania carried her infant's body for nearly four months and individuals throughout the community were heard making distinctive vocalizations that the researchers had come to associate with fear and agitation. Other cases have been observed in the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, baboons of Ethiopia, macaques in Japan, and ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar (see the timeline below).
There have also been notable examples of care being taken with the dead in African elephants and bottlenosed dolphins. In the case of the elephants, an ailing matriarch was observed to receive support from unrelated members of her group, behaviors that couldn’t be explained by either Hamilton’s theory of kin selection nor Trivers theory of reciprocal altruism. This concern with her body continued after death. Further study looked at how the group interacted with the bones of their former group mates and confirmed that the famous behaviors observed at elephant graveyards are intentional, individuals focused more intently on these remains than to other features of their environment. According to lead author Iain Douglass-Hamilton, these results challenge existing theories on where altruistic behavior ultimately comes from.
“The conclusion must be that elephants are interested in the sick, dying or dead elephants irrespective of genetic relationship,” he said. “There seems to be a generalized response to elephants in distress, rather than help or interest only being restricted to close kin.”
In a similar way to what primatologist Frans de Waal has documented in chimpanzees, the individuals appear to experience empathy with those who are sick or dead. But does this mean that nonhuman animals have a concept of death? According to Katherine Cronin in the case of the chimpanzee Masya, the behaviors are certainly suggestive of this.
“These behaviors would supply tactile and visual information about the current state of the body,” she said. The mother was intently observing her infant, her eyes rarely straying from the body as it lay in the sun. Likewise, as she was touching her baby’s face or neck, could note the absence of breath or lack of blood circulation warming her tiny frame. “Conceivably, this information could be remembered the next time she encountered the same set of cues,” Cronin said. In this way, the implications of death could be learned by chimpanzees.
Our desire to touch the dead, to adorn them in their Sunday best and wish them a final farewell, is the human process of gathering similar information. It is a way to reconcile our deep familiarity with the body of our loved ones with the realization that what they may once have been is no more. I’m not even certain that we have a concept of death beyond what we can tell from directly comparing what is different between the living and the dead. I certainly didn’t as a ten-year-old child shuffling past my grandfather’s coffin. In my desire to touch his cold hand I may have been fulfilling a need that many animals experience when confronted with their own realization of death.
Whether it’s a chimpanzee mother carrying her dead infant on her back, or what The New York Times reported of the woman from Plainfield, New Jersey who “talked to her dead infant as though it was alive” as she rode the crowded rail car home, the effect may be to ease our minds towards acceptance. For regardless of where we started in life, we all end up in the same place. Death is the great unifier and as we reach out to touch the dead, we are ultimately connecting with everyone else who is struggling to let go.
Cronin, K., van Leeuwen, E., Mulenga, I., & Bodamer, M. (2011). Behavioral response of a chimpanzee mother toward her dead infant American Journal of Primatology, 73 (5), 415-421 DOI: 10.1002/ajp.20927