Death + Popular Culture Grief + Mourning

Day 11: Planet of the Apes Grieving for Their Ape Kind Dead

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 Planet of the Apes movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

We’ll set aside all the timeline problems and alternative universes this specific reboot created. And no one should ever speak again of Tim Burton’s terrible remake.

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.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Humor Death + Technology

Walter Potter’s Anthropomorphic Taxidermy and Dead Animals

On the Death and Burial of Cock Robin
Guest Post by John Troyer, Centre for Death and Society, Bath University (August 23, 2013)

Death Ref’s good friend Joanna Ebenstein, who runs the Morbid Anatomy blog and benevolent empire in Brooklyn, NY, asked me if I would write a guest blog post for her new book on the 19th century British taxidermist Walter Potter. If you don’t know Walter Potter’s work, but like taxidermy, then you really must look him up. Joanna and Walter Potter expert Pat Morris have put together a new book called Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy.

Walter Potter is known (and a little infamous, in a late-Victorian kind of way) for his anthropomorphic taxidermy in which dead kittens (for example) have a tea party. There is significantly more to say about all of Potter’s taxidermy work, but I focused on a personal favourite The Death and Burial of Cock Robin.

The Death and Burial of Cock Robin by Walter Potter
The Death and Burial of Cock Robin by Walter Potter


Please check it out!

Death + Biology Death + Disaster Death + Humor

Bye Bye Birdies

The recent spate of mass bird deaths has taken flight across the Internet—a literal and figurative tweeting and Twittering—and dare I say crowing—on a large scale. You could say it’s causing quite a “flap.” Reported by the Associated Press, the Daily Mail and others, masses of birds have been mysteriously falling from the sky in the U.S and Europe, dead on arrival. Red-winged blackbirds, starlings and turtle doves have been the victims in these rains of death. In addition, reports of mass fish deaths in the American South and crab die-offs in England have also joined the fray. But what of it? Are these the fabled “end times”? Media hype? Or something else?

Speculation has run rampant, but according to the U.S. Geological Survey, die-offs such as these happen more frequently than is reported—but, because of instant communication now possible via the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle—people (the media included) are trying to connect the dots and perhaps make connections where there is none. The USGS calmly says,

While large-scale bird die-offs are always a concern, they are not that unusual. USGS records list at least 16 events involving more than 1,000 black birds or starlings over the past 30 years. The majority of these cases were poison related, although weather-related trauma was also the cause of some events

Although no definitive explanation has yet been found—and may never be—the speculation and hype has been staggering. It has even been dubbed “aflockalypse” by some (!) Check out the nifty Google Map tracing mass animal deaths worldwide that a lone blogger put together. Depending on your tendencies, you can allay, or perhaps heighten? your fears, by reading the Black Bird die-off Investigation page here. Oh, and there’s even a USGS webpage called the New and Ongoing Wildlife Mortality Rates Nationwide. Here, you can keep track of reported events involving “a network of partners across the country work on documenting wildlife mortality events in order to provide timely and accurate information on locations, species and causes of death.” Who knew?

We usually stick to the strictly human side of death here at DRD. Sure, we have the occasional drunken elk rampage story, (i.e. Man vs. Beast). Really, the interest for me is more about how we, as a society, are reacting to these bird deaths rather than the deaths themselves. But before you run down to your public library looking for a King James bible to check out (don’t bother because they’re all stolen of course) or borrow a copy of Evan Almighty (we can only hope these are all stolen) take a deep breath and do a little fact checking. Maybe a viewing of The Birds is in order? For now, invest in a sturdy umbrella.

*No animals were harmed in the writing of this post. However, black(bird) humor was employed at least a once or twice.

Death + Biology Death + Crime

Murder?! The Maggots Are on It

Crime Scene Insects
BBC World Service (June 11, 2010)

This episode of BBC Documentaries explores forensic entomology: “the investigation of insects recovered from crime scenes and corpses.” Guests include Amoret Whitaker of the Natural History Museum in London, who studies the flies and maggots that congregate on corpses to find clues about the time and nature of death. She also analyzes the decomposition of pigs, a “good model for humans.”

They also speak with Bill Bass, anthropologist at the Body Farm, a facility at the University of Tennessee for researching the decomposition of bodies. According to Professor Bass, “I went to the Dean in November of ’71 and I said, ‘Dean, I need some land to put dead bodies on.’ ” And land he did receive. (John posted last fall about the Body Farm needing to refuse unclaimed bodies because of the growing surplus resulting from the poor economy… yikes!)

Have a listen — 22.5 minutes of homicide-solving maggots is bound to brighten any day.

Cemeteries cremation Funeral Industry

Humans and Pets Cremating Together

Cremation Association of North America (CANA) and International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories (IAOPCC) Announce new Guidelines for Pet Cremation
Press Release, March 2010

Pet cremation is big business for human funeral homes looking to branch out into other industries. And normally I wouldn’t just trot out a press release for a Death Reference Desk post but this newly announce initiative about human and pet cremation groups coming together to produce guidelines really intrigued me.

Chicago, IL – The Cremation Association of North America (CANA), an international organization composed of cremationists, funeral directors, cemeterians, industry suppliers and consultants, and the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories, an international organization recognized as the authority in the pet aftercare industry, have been working together to develop industry guidelines for pet cremation practices.

The Press Release has two quote from each organization:

“There has been significant growth in pet cremation over that past ten years as families seek ways to appropriately memorialize a cherished pet,” said IAOPCC President Scott Hunter, “and at the same time owners want reassurance that the cremation facilities they use provide high quality services for their pets. By working with the Cremation Association of North America, we seek to establish standard industry terminology and practices for the proper respectful care of pets in memorial services.”


CANA President Bill McQueen noted, “As the premiere organization focused on all aspects of cremation service, CANA has been pleased to work with the IAOPCC to extend our knowledge and experience into developing broad-based guidelines for pet cremation. CANA’s highly regarded crematory operator certification program and model laws for cremation have significant application to practices in pet memorialization. CANA takes pride in being the cremation solutions community and is pleased to work with IAOPCC to extend the reach of our community.”

So there you have it. Pet Cremations and Human Cremations will finally find common ground. And new terms will be invented too. That’s even better.

Actually, I totally support pet cremation and I think that people should handle the death of a pet as they see fit. The death of a pet can be more heart braking than the death of a human relative. My only concern is that these new agreed upon standards don’t create higher prices. That seems to happen too.

Death + Biology Grief + Mourning

Chimpanzees and their Dead Relatives

Chimps’ Emotional Response to Death Caught on Film
Ian Sample, The Guardian (April 26, 2010)


Chimps ‘feel death like humans’
BBC News (April 26, 2010)

We humans have a peculiar relationship with chimpanzees. On the one hand, we like to understand ourselves in terms of chimp behaviors: tool making, group cohesion, even DNA. On the other hand, we humans don’t like it when chimps become aggressive and harm other animals, including humans.

We here at the Death Reference Desk have actually discussed chimps and death before.

It makes complete sense, then, that two different academic journal articles on chimpanzees mourning other dead chimps would attract human attention. The articles, which are discussed in The Guardian and the BBC News, engage in heavy doses of anthropomorphic desire, so much so, that I almost feel bad for the chimps. While it’s true that some of the mourning behavior shown by one group of captive chimps is similar to some human behavior, I’m not so sure that it says anything about either species.

The two videos from the journal articles show the first group of chimps surrounding a dying and then dead chimp. The second video shows a young chimp playing with the mummified carcass of a chimpanzee which the mother has hung onto.

Video one is what humans love to watch because that’s what we do. Video two is a different story altogether and clearly demonstrates a difference between the species.

But maybe video two is what we humans should really be watching. Maybe the chimp playing with the mummified corpse is what we should pay more attention to since that behavior seems so inhuman. Playing games with dead bodies seems ghastly and is actually, depending on the location it occurs, criminal. But what prevents humans from doing what these chimps, our closest primate relatives, are doing? I’ll go a step further and say that maybe the chimps offer humans a lesson in not forgetting about the materiality of death…but now I’m anthropomorphizing too.

Video 1: Chimps mourning

Video 2: Chimps with mummified corpse

Death + Biology

Lolcats? No, Death Cat.

The story of Oscar, the “Death Cat”, is making the rounds these days. From articles in Discover and the New England Journal of Medicine, to an episode of House to a recent posting on this Danish death-related blog, AND a newly published book, this cat gets around—but only if you’re about to die!

Oscar is a therapy cat who currently resides at Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. His special (and for some, disturbing) talent is seeking out and curling up on the beds of terminally ill patients near death. Then, as soon as they’ve passed, he jumps off the bed and disappears.

Some say the cat is able to smell certain ketones in the blood that are released during the pre-death process. It is similar, they say, to the reported cases of cancer smelling dogs. Others think it’s just a coincidence or that he just likes to snuggle up with the heating blankets often present on the patient’s beds.

I tend to think that Oscar is indeed aware of something beyond human detection. I don’t think it’s that hard to believe that their olfactory senses are so sensitive as to detect almost infinitesimal chemical traces in humans. Think of cadaver or drug-sniffing dogs, for example. Smell is such a powerful sense in both humans and animals—although we humans are like a brick of rock compared to the finely tuned nasal capacity of certain animals. Fun facts: Bloodhounds have over 300 million olfactory receptors and the average house cat has about 200 million receptors. Humans have a mere 5 million (New Scientist). And for more about smell, check out The Smell Report by the Social Issues Research Centre. But why does Oscar feel compelled to lay with the patient? Is he trying to comfort the dying? Or is he just trying to send a message/warning to the living and the dying, that hey, someone is going to die here? Who knows. But I think it’s super fascinating. What do you, dear reader, think?

Death + the Law

Swedish Woman Killed by Elk (possibly) Drunk on Fermented Apples

Sweden woman’s ‘murder’ committed by elk not husband
BBC News (November 28, 2009)

Mean Ferocious ElkSo yeah. There are a number of more important articles that I SHOULD be posting to Death Ref right now, but I couldn’t resist this one. Especially since Swedish officials are saying that Elk can become aggressive after eating fermented apples.

I like to think that this is a warning. Eventually the animals will all strike back against the humans for all the hunting, the terrible t-shirts that use their images without asking, and five pound bags of beef jerky. LOOK OUT Wisconsin!!!!

If the dogs in Japan lash out, it’s going to be really really bad…

Death + Biology Grief + Mourning

Chimpanzee Funeral?

Behind the Lens: The Grieving Chimps
Jeremy Berlin, National Geographic Blog Central (October 29, 2009)

Fast on the heels of debatably mourning magpies, I offer you the somewhat more definitive (pics and it happened!) chimpanzee funeral, where huddled, sad chimps appear to pay their last respects to their dead companion Dorothy.

Photograph by Monica Szczupider

Of course the “funeral” and burial part was enacted by humans. But the photo is touching and striking nonetheless. From the National Geographic blog:

Szczupider, who had been a volunteer at the center, told me: “Her presence, and loss, was palpable, and resonated throughout the group. The management at Sanaga-Yong opted to let Dorothy’s chimpanzee family witness her burial, so that perhaps they would understand, in their own capacity, that Dorothy would not return. Some chimps displayed aggression while others barked in frustration. But perhaps the most stunning reaction was a recurring, almost tangible silence. If one knows chimpanzees, then one knows that [they] are not [usually] silent creatures.”

Death + Biology Grief + Mourning

No Tittering of Mourning Magpies

Magpies Hold Funerals for Fallen Feathered Friends
Lester Haines, The Register (October 21, 2009)

Animal Emotions, Wild Justice and Why They Matter: Grieving Magpies, a Pissy Baboon, and Empathic Elephants (paid access only)
Marc Berkoff, Emotion, Space and Society (August 27, 2009; doi:10.1016/j.emospa.2009.08.001)

Reporting on an unfortunately toll-access article from the journal Emotion, Space and Society, Lester Haines at The Register relays the claim that magpies appear to hold rituals for dead pals:

Dr. Marc Bekoff observed four magpies alongside a fallen comrade, and recounted: “One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcass of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off.”

Similar behaviors have been observed in other magpies, as well as in ravens and crows. Unfortunately The Register article is brief and the real deal’s under lock and key (well… $9.95). Several readers have weighed in in the comments, however, and probably without reading the actual research, many dismiss the claim as bad science and overt anthropomorphism, an accusation Beckoff has previously countered with, “It’s bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions.”

Hear, hear! (Full disclosure: I am closing in my 10-year anniversary as a vegetarian.)

Then again, I do enjoy rigor in my rigor mortis research — I’d like to know more about it. As for the post title, I love animal / social group names. Everyone knows it’s a murder of crows, many, an unkindness of ravens. Magpies are a gulp, tiding or tittering. Tee hee! And no one would be laughing at a funeral. At least not these magpies.

Cemeteries cremation Funeral Industry Monuments + Memorials



People are crazy about their pets. Diamond tiaras, cat condos, doggie daycares serving gourmet kibble, anti-depressants and acupuncture for the unstable pet in your life — all this and more is available for Mr. Wiggles or Li’l Boots. After all, they’re not simply a dog or a cat — they’re family. Current statistics, trend analysis, and the recurring crazy stories bear this out.

Considering that pets replace children for many, it follows that we treat these family members with the same kind of concern we normally reserve for our human brethren. But our animal companions are mortal too and so it follows that an end-of-life plan is just one of the many ways we can show how much we care for that beloved pet.

The pet cemetery industry — like the human one — fulfills our need to remember the dearly departed. According to the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories, there are 600 active pet cemeteries in the United States. And let’s not forget the related satellite industries such as pet funerals, pet urns/memorials and pet insurance which are also big business. Although there is some contention as to the oldest, the Hartsdale (NY) Cemetery and Crematory was established in 1896 and calls itself “America’s First and Most Prestigious Pet Burial Grounds.”

I remember seeing the captivating Errol Morris documentary, Gates of Heaven, years ago. As many reviewers have suggested, this isn’t just a documentary about pet cemeteries; it’s about the human condition. By turns funny, tragic and bizarre, the film captures and distills emotional truth in a compelling narrative. Roger Ebert named it one of the 10 best films of all-time.

On a personal note, Squeakers, my own feline companion of seventeen years, died last year. I chose cremation over burial or any other number of ways I could have memorialized my pet. Call me dispassionate or cheap, but I just couldn’t see forking over a small fortune to memorialize my cat for eternity.

Thinking I would receive a bag of ashes and a bill, I was actually taken aback when I got the call from the vet to come and pick her up. Instead of the ziplock bag I was expecting, I received a small box, covered in hand-made paper, embedded with pressed flowers. Attached to the box was a card and an envelope. The card was signed by the entire veterinary staff, with wishes of condolence flowing out. And the most unexpected of all? A tiny plastic bag (like the kind that comes with an extra button for a new blouse) containing a chunk of her fur and a small piece of card-stock paper with her inked paw-print — her inked paw print! What the? These intimate and personal touches took me by surprise. I guess it kind of freaked me out. I didn’t authorize the cutting of fur and the inking of paws. But I guess that’s how things are done when no specifications are given.

Not that I was angry — if anything, I was a little miffed that the box containing the ashes was hot-glued shut. I guess they thought viewing the ashes would be too much too bear. So being the curious sort, I took a knife and opened it up. I had to see what was left of old Squeaks. As expected, they pretty much looked like all the other cremains I’ve seen. Call me cold, but they are now sitting unceremoniously in a box in my storage unit on the outskirts of Portland. But really, is that pile of dust Squeakers anyhow? Doesn’t she live on in my memory and more gloriously in the photo above? I’d like to think so.

If you want to learn more about pets and death, search your local library catalogue under such terms as pet death, pet loss, pets and grief, pets and bereavement, etc.