Nonhuman Thanatology and the Quest for Human Exceptionalism, by M L Clark

Tahlequah didn’t know she had an audience while in mourning.

She didn’t even know that she’d been named Tahlequah, purported to mean “two is enough” in Cherokee, and also J35, by the humans who kept tabs on her as she carried her stillborn calf for seventeen days around the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest. She didn’t know that seasoned researchers and average media viewers alike were speculating the whole time about her thought process, the depth of her feelings, and her capacity to understand the mortality of her offspring. Nor would she know how much audiences cheered, two years later, to discover that she had given birth to a live calf after her loss.

Tahlequah, a killer whale, is by no means the only nonhuman animal to have captured our attention for displaying behaviors we recognize around death—the loving ones, and the vengeful ones, too. In 1925 a canine named Hachiko started what would be nine years of waiting daily at the train station for his dead human: like any small child who’s lost a loved one, this Japanese Akita dog was unable to believe that his human companion was never coming back. Conversely, in 2022, a story emerged in India about an elephant who attacked and killed a seventy-year-old woman, then returned during her funeral and trampled her corpse, roared to signal for its herd to storm the village, and personally smashed the dead woman’s home, killing the goats inside, in what locals have taken as the expression of an extreme vendetta against the deceased.

(I mean, who amongst us, right?)

But there is something striking about the way we latch onto stories about other animals and their approaches to death. For all that humans use animals in our own myths about death—the owls whose presence is a bad omen in some cultures; the black dogs and cats that foreshadow demise; the corvids and vultures that, as at least partial scavengers, are obvious as symbols of impending destruction—we seem to find extraordinary any indications that other animals might also have behavioral relationships to the fact of death itself.

Why, though, should the animal kingdom’s range of death responses intrigue us so?

Humans have range, too

When I was a child, I puzzled over whether belief in an afterlife did my religious friends any good. For me, a lifelong atheist, death was the same as pre-life: a void in lieu of the consciousness I currently sustain. When my best friend’s father died when we were twelve, she asked me in her grief why her god had taken him so young, and I didn’t know what to say that would respect both our beliefs, but I was also angry that her religion didn’t seem to bring her any comfort or deeper understanding. And yet, when another friend lost her father, the strength of her more evangelical faith was so great that her grief passed almost overnight. She had such an unwavering conviction that he was still alive, in Heaven, that she saw nothing to grieve in the end of his bodily cage. They were going to be together again soon enough.

These days, though, I find that the human struggle with mortality comes through most clearly in our attempts to quantify views of death in the rest of the animal kingdom. It’s not just the grief cries among animals missing their absent companions, or the stories of elephants returning to the sometimes buried bones of their dead. Researchers were chilled in recent years, for instance, when a group of chimpanzees continued to abuse and even cannibalize for hours the body of an exiled member they had killed en masse. A clear sign of outsized hate? Or an inability to recognize that their original murder had been completed?

Monkeys and apes have similar responses to the deaths of infants: often carrying and inspecting the body of the dead for days or weeks after its passing. But some differences emerge in their responses to adult corpses, with fear-based violence and/or avoidance behaviors showing up when external wounds aren’t in clear evidence on the corpses.

Primate thanatology is perhaps the least mystifying of our fascinations with nonhuman animality, though, because this field of study has the clearest connection to our quest to understand ourselves, and the history of our own species. As André Goncalves and Susana Carvalho noted in 2019, the transition from hominoid species preceding our own can be traced in part through the development of more elaborate mortality practices from much simpler responses to the sheer fact of death among early nonhuman primates. Studying the range of other primate responses today is the closest we can come, some argue, to understanding our own ancestors’ journey toward the creation of such intricate cultures around death.

But even in this still-nascent field of study, human-centric ideas around death create significant challenges. Paul Pettitt and James R. Anderson, writing for Primates in 2020, observed that “interest is finally turning away from old dichotomies that saw human groups that ‘buried their dead’ as ‘cognitively modern’ (whatever that is) … towards a more nuanced approach that recognizes that … there are many ways to deal with corpses.” That cultural shift is of a piece with other recent reevaluations of early history, like David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, which pushes back on the antiquated notion of a rigid progression from simpler to more complex (i.e., more material) forms of civilization.

Still, research in primate thanatology often adopts a detached register that poses serious questions about the interpretive lens we’re applying to other species. Consider the following conclusions from two recent papers:

In the mountain gorilla cases, the individuals who spent the most time with the corpses were animals who shared close social relationships with the deceased. We emphasize the similarity in the behavioral responses around the corpses of group and extra-group individuals, and suggest that the behavioral responses were influenced in part by close social relationships between the deceased and certain group members and by a general curiosity about death. (Porter et al., “Behavioral responses around conspecific corpses in adult eastern gorillas,” PeerJ, 2019)


They can also make distress calls, and periods of “stunned silence” sometimes occur in chimpanzees, indicating that they are experiencing intense emotion. Finally, we argue that while both monkeys and great apes detect body dysfunction through the victims’ inability to wake up and move, only great apes can understand that something serious has happened. The signs of emotional disturbance reported in them indicate that they may believe that inanimate conspecifics have entered a state of “dormancy”, meaning that they are unlikely to regain wakefulness. However, there is no evidence that any nonhuman primates are aware of mortality. (De Marco et al., “Coping with mortality: responses of monkeys and apes to collapsed, inanimate and dead conspecifics,” Ethology Ecology & Evolution, 2021)

The former is asserting that friendliness in life is a pretty good indicator of an animal showing up for another animal in death, while the latter is skeptical that shows of disturbance and trauma at the sight of the dead are sufficient proof of other animals understanding mortality.

Can you imagine David Attenborough crouching outside one of our own visitations with the dead, and with that soothing, wonder-struck voice of his, coming to the same conclusions about our species when seeing who shows up and how they react to the body on display?

In other words, from what baseline are we really deciding that other animals do or do not “understand” death, when our own species varies so widely in its own performance of knowledge around the theme? When we run the gamut from people like me, who believe that death is the end of consciousness, to people like my old evangelical friend, who do not believe there is any real death in the expiration of one’s physical form, to those like my childhood best friend, who live with both belief in an afterlife and a sense of definite loss in this one?

And not just people with those three positions on “the mystery,” but many others besides? People who follow animist traditions that see a life force in all things (as perhaps most adorably explored, most recently, in the Gudetama: An Eggcellent Adventure Netflix miniseries)? People who hold reincarnative beliefs that see death as a critical end to but one phase in a cyclical journey? People who feel that the spirits of their ancestors are both in another place and also always with them, in need of routine and festival-day tribute to achieve a better rest?

Clinging to human exceptionalism

In a heated debate on evolutionary theory in 1860, Sir Richard Owen put forward that “the brain of the gorilla was more different from that of man than from that of the lowest primate particularly because only man had a posterior lobe, a posterior horn, and a hippocampus minor.” His opponent, T. H. Huxley, disagreed that the human brain was so different (although, in the process, he also claimed that this was because the “lesser races” had brains closer in size to those of other primates, so there are no clean victories in the nineteenth century).

Soon after, anatomical research confirmed that great apes had a hippocampus minor, too, but at the time, this debate was only the latest of a long series of attempts to keep human beings distant from (and above) the rest of the animal kingdom. The more we learned about ourselves and the world, the more we were moving from clear evidence of a classic hierarchy in which Man was set apart from, and made master over, everything else. Some, nevertheless, were eager to dig into whatever shrinking territory for human exceptionalism remained.

Centuries prior, René Descartes, famed depicter of consciousness in the phrase “I think, therefore I am,” had regarded nonhuman animals as automatons. Though he recognized that “animal spirits” (physical processes) informed actions in the human body the same as they did in that of the wolf, he felt that we had “hastily concluded” that the existence of similar bodily motions presumed the existence of similar spiritual motions, too.

The idea that other animals did not feel pain because they had no souls wasn’t a value-neutral proposition, either, because for centuries it was used to justify brutal vivisection practices that helped humans understand the biochemical processes in our own physical forms. In 1874, Huxley’s “On the Hypothesis that Animals Are Automata, and Its History” emerged in the midst of a critical anti-vivisectionist moment, and marked a change in recognizing that all our attempts to make humanity seem any less mechanical than our fellow animals (and our fellow animals any less unfeeling than ourselves) were but arbitrary and self-aggrandizing folly.

And yet that work continues, as seen in nonhuman thanatological investigations now.

On the surface, it really shouldn’t surprise us that other animals feel pain and grief, loneliness and despair. Perhaps, though, it isn’t shock so much as hope that shapes our attention to individual anecdotes and broader scientific analysis around other species: hope, that is, for some deeper answer in knowing whether or not we are alone with our thoughts on death. Is there a universal baseline belief around mortality that all beings of a certain level of sentience inevitably attain? Or will some of our perspectives around death always be unique in the whole of the animal world—and does their uniqueness make them signs of our superiority?

In the range of our own reactions to death, after all, there is so much we do not fully know how to name, let alone how to “rank” in terms of exceptionalism. George Saunders wrote a whole book, Lincoln in the Bardo, framed around Abraham Lincoln’s routine of visiting his dead eleven-year-old son at Willie’s temporary resting place during the Civil War. In Indonesia, the Toraja people dig up the preserved bodies of their relatives for an triannual festival that keeps their memories alive. When and how is it appropriate to set these human reactions to death on a spectrum that includes the behaviors and rituals of our fellow sentient beings, too?

On the one hand, there are good reasons not to leap to suggesting that Lincoln’s behavior and that of a grieving orca who will not let go of her dead child are “the same”—or that the Toraja and elephants who gather seasonally to dig up the bones of their ancestors are, either. For the nonhuman animals, there’s always a danger of anthropomorphizing their activities to the extent that we fail to see what makes their own species’ experiences distinct. And for the humans—especially in white-normative Western scientific practice, not so far advanced beyond Huxley’s nineteenth-century logic after all—there’s also a long, toxic history of comparing animal and Indigenous rites to the diminishment of the human beings who practice them.

But what if we at least considered the possibility that this very fascination with how other animals might or might not view death reveals something telling about our own thanatology?

In scientific studies, we often use humanity’s most elaborate conceptualizations of mortality as the bar that other sentient beings have to cross over to “count,” while in popular media, we readily latch on to whatever nonhuman death-responses even approximate our own. In both cases, though, what’s shared is the use of other thanatologies to deepen an understanding of ourselves. Yes, for those worried about losing yet another site of human exceptionalism, it’s likely a site of fear and anxiety to see other animals even approximate “our’” feats of mortality.

But also, among others, perhaps there’s a genuine eagerness—a deep and abiding longing—behind our haste to connect even with the most grief-struck of our fellow creatures on this pale blue dot. Certainly, other animals aren’t going to be submitting their own treatises on death to publications any time soon—but even if other animals are only ever going to be grappling with death in their own ways… isn’t it heartening, even a little, to know that this most essential part of life might weigh as heavily, and complexly, on the fleeting lives of other critters, too?


M L Clark is a writer of speculative fiction (Analog, Clarkesworld, F&SF) and humanist essays (for OnlySky). Canadian by birth and settler by heritage, Clark now calls Medellín, Colombia home, and publishes translations of classic Colombian literature alongside personal SFF out of Sí, Hay Futuros Ediciones. Follow Clark’s newsletter, Better Worlds Theory, for weekly international analyses, media literacy pieces, and/or thoughts on literature and publishing.

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