3 September 2008

Turning of the bones

...elaborate displays of apparent maternal grief [by a gorilla] may reveal less about our [human and gorilla] shared awareness of death than our shared impulse to act as though it didn’t exist...
-- writes Nathalie Angier in a well-balanced article about the reactions of various animals (including apes, elephants, lions and social insects) to death.

Many have argued that believing that (or acting as if) death is not what it seems is a key driver of religious behaviour in humans. The Malagasy practice of famadihana, the Turning of the Bones, may be only one of the more striking examples - an "an evocation of being together again, a transformation of sorts so that the dead can experience once more the joys of life [and] most importantly...an act of love", in the words of Maurice Bloch.

It's also a commonplace that one of the hardest things to look at directly is your own death. The 'true story of your death' may appear somewhere in a book in the Library of Babel. Or, it may hit you before you know what's happening like a Bullet in the Brain.

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