What everyone should be discussing is how apes grieve for their dead. The New York Times Magazine ran an article in June 2013 on this topic. The Death Reference Desk has also written about Chimpanzees and grief before, in 2010 and 2009.
You can also read more generally about animals and death here.
Whenever we Humans start discussing our primate cousins and grieving, we run the risk of going on an anthropomorphising rampage. That said, it’s clear that our Great Ape relatives could teach us a few things about understanding mortality and the finality of time.
Want to Understand Mortality? Look to the Chimps Maggie Koerth-Baker, New York Times Magazine (June 25, 2013) Today is the release date for the new…
This is a Death Reference Desk post which begins in December 2007.
At that time, I was contacted by Minneapolis based filmmaker and writer Susan Marks about her new documentary film. She was working on a film about the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, located in Baltimore, Maryland. I had never heard of the “Nutshells” (as they’re called by those in the know) but once Susan brought me up to speed on the project, I wanted in.
The Nutshells are an astoundingly detailed set of miniature dollhouse dioramas, some 18 in total, and each of them represents an unexplained death. All of the dioramas were painstakingly created by Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy woman who went a long ways in founding the field of modern forensic science. All of this during the first half of the twentieth century. Harvard University (where Frances Glessner Lee was based) originally kept the Nutshells but then sold them to the Maryland Department of Health in Baltimore.
Here’s the rub: the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are so exquisitely detailed that police departments still use them today for crime scene investigation training. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, nothing beats a well built diorama!
This all brings me back to 2007. Susan wanted to interview me about representations of death, dying, and dead bodies in popular culture, film, art, and science. Making a documentary film about the Nutshells was pretty straightforward (more or less) but what Susan wanted to ponder was a bigger question. She wanted to understand how the Nutshells might shed light on the current fascination with all things dead, dying, and CSI.
I have never seen the Nutshells, only photographs, but in those images I was struck by the following thought: We humans aren’t looking at the dead dolls for crime scene clues. No. We humans look at those dead dolls (and the dolls look back) in order to find some kind meaning, if that’s even possible, in death.
The Nutshells aren’t about unsolved deaths. They’re about the human imagination grappling with the postmortem insecurities which surround the dead self.