An article in NY Times provoked my interest and obviously that of a Newscientist blog.
It's about whether animals are aware of what death is.
Here's the article and my comment to the question in that blog whether humans understand death, because I do think this is an important question.
Reading how some animals keep the death mate/child close to them, I can't but remember the following tradition in proto-bulgarians( also called just Bulgars). The widow of the passed person took a wood with the size of the deceased and treated it like it was his/her spouse-taking it to their bed, holding it, putting it on the table, talking to it. This was going for certain time, a day or a week I don't remember. The wood had eyes and mouth chopped on it and it was just like a dummy-spouse. In the end, that wood called yupa was put on the grave of the person and when the living spouse visited the grave, s/he will bring food and booze, give them to the yupa, talk to it, and it becomes a representation of the dead person. The food tradition is still living in Bulgaria.
I can't but connect that rutual with the monkey who won't let go the dead body and will treat it as it was alive. I wouldn't say it's just a simple denial, I think there are deeper roots, roots we are yet to understand. Maybe, just maybe, they have something to do with the closeness to the Nature of the first people (those that according to Sumerian texts were too close to the animals and the gods made them more civilized by cutting that link). Because for me, it gets clearer and clearer that there is a whole missing culture and life-style that we're yet to completely discover-that of the earliest people.
Those that had predominant water elements in them, not the constant schezofrenia of water vs. fire. Anyway, more on this other time.
But for me, it's obvious that some animals do understand death. For example goats miss their slaughtered kids for around a day. While they miss another goat that has been sold or just missing for days. That is an obvious difference-they know when it's worthy to miss someone.
Here is the article, the link to the blog and my response to the question about death is below them.
About Death, Just Like Us or Pretty Much Unaware?
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.
Last week the Internet and European news outlets were flooded with poignant photographs of Gana, an 11-year-old gorilla at the Münster Zoo in Germany, holding up the body of her dead baby, Claudio, and pursing her lips toward his lifeless fingers. Claudio died at the age of 3 months of an apparent heart defect, and for days Gana refused to surrender his corpse to zookeepers, a saga that provoked among her throngs of human onlookers admiration and compassion and murmurings that, you see? Gorillas, and probably a lot of other animals as well, have a grasp of their mortality and will grieve for the dead and are really just like us after all.
Nobody knows what emotions swept through Gana’s head and heart as she persisted in cradling and nuzzling the remains of her son. But primatologists do know this: Among nearly all species of apes and monkeys in the wild, a mother will react to the death of her infant as Gana did — by clutching the little decedent to her breast and treating it as though it were still alive. For days or even weeks afterward, she will take it with her everywhere and fight off anything that threatens to snatch it away. Only gradually will she allow the distance between herself and the ever-gnarlier carcass to grow.
Yes, we’re a lot like other primates, particularly the great apes, with whom we have more than 98 percent of our genes in common. Yet elaborate displays of apparent maternal grief like Gana’s may reveal less about our shared awareness of death than our shared impulse to act as though it didn’t exist.
Everywhere in nature, biologists say, are examples of animals behaving as though they were at least vaguely aware of death’s brutal supremacy and yet unpersuaded that it had anything to do with them. Michael Wilson, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota who has studied chimpanzees at Jane Goodall’s research site in Gombe, said chimps were “very different from us in terms of what they understand about death and the difference between the living and the dead.” The Hallmark hanky moment alternates with the Roald Dahl macabre. A mother will try to nurse her dead baby back to life, Dr. Wilson said, “but when the infant becomes quite decayed, she’ll carry it by just one leg or sling it over her back in a casual way.”
Juvenile chimpanzees display signs of genuine grief when their mothers die. In one famous case in Gombe, when a matriarch of the troop named Flo died at the age of 50-plus years, her son, Flint, proved inconsolable. Flint was 8 years old and could easily have cared for himself, but he had been unusually attached to his mother and refused to leave her corpse’s side. Within a month, the son, too, died.
Yet adult chimpanzees rarely react with overt sentimentality to the death of another adult, Dr. Wilson said. As a rule, sick or elderly adults go off into the forest to die alone, he said, and those that die in company often do so at the hands of other adults, who “sometimes make sure the victim is dead, and sometimes they don’t,” he said. The same laissez-faire attitude toward death-versus-life applies to chimpanzee hunting behavior. “When they’re hunting red colobus monkeys, they will either kill the monkeys first or simply immobilize them and start eating them while they’re still alive,” Dr. Wilson said. “The monkey will continue screaming and thrashing as they pull its guts out, which is very unpleasant for humans who are watching.”
For some animals, the death of a conspecific is a little tinkle of the dinner bell. A lion will approach another lion’s corpse, give it a sniff and a lick, and if the corpse is fresh enough, will start to eat it. For others, a corpse is considered dangerous and must be properly disposed of. Among naked mole rats, for example, which are elaborately social mammals that spend their entire lives in a system of underground tunnels, a corpse is detected quickly and then dragged, kicked or carried to the communal latrine. And when the latrine is filled, said Paul Sherman of Cornell University, “they seal it off with an earthen plug, presumably for hygienic reasons, and dig a new one.”
Among the social insects, the need for prompt corpse management is considered so pressing that there are dedicated undertakers, workers that within a few minutes of a death will pick up the body and hoist or fly it outside, to a safe distance from hive or nest, the better to protect against possible contagious disease. Honeybees are such compulsive housekeepers that if a mouse or other large creature, drawn by the warmth or promise of honey, happens to make its way into the hive and die inside, the bees, unable to bodily remove it, will embalm it in resin collected from trees. “You can find mummified mice inside beehives that are completely preserved right down to their whiskers,” said Gene E. Robinson, professor of entomology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
But all is not grim for those dead in tooth and claw. Researchers have determined that elephants deserve their longstanding reputation as exceptionally death-savvy beings, their concern for the remains of their fellows approaching what we might call reverence. Reporting in the journal Biology Letters, Karen McComb of the University of Sussex and her colleagues found that 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.source
I'd like to point out toward the second question since I believe the first is ill-posed. Maybe I'll just say that as long as we don't have a good communication link with any other specie, we can hardly know what that specie is capable to think or feel. And because I'm a dog owner and I've seen how much a dog is able to feel and express, I think it's little bit weird to claim a closer to humans biological specie will be less able to have emotions.
But back to the second question. Do humans understand death? No. And this is a definite answer. Even if you think you understand it, you still don't. It's enough to see death near you, to understand how uncomfortable you are with it. And what a hurricane of emotions it can arise in you.
In short-the only thing we know about death is that it's a process, not a moment. But from then on, there's no science. Brain shuts down, heart stops, but body cells can live for hours after that. Another organisms may live for days or months on the dead body. The most fascinating part-the heart and the lungs may stop, the brain may start shutting off, but after getting the person back to life, s/he may be completely the same person as before or may slip into coma. There was a case in France when a person was claimed dead and completely recovered after hours without life-support. Sure, nobody monitored his(or was it her?) brain, but still, that raise a lot of questions.
What do we know about death? Nothing!
We know that the body slowly dissolves and the person is not available anymore in that form. Where s/he goes, what happens, will there be another similar person after 18 years (the time for the personality to complete its maturity)-can we know after that time and with all the 5 billion members of the human race? I doubt.
We know nothing of death and our feelings toward it are thus more marked by egoism than anything else. We mourn the person because WE lost it. That has nothing to do with the death of that person. We'd feel the same way if s/he went to live in another galaxy.