07/25/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

I See Dead People

There I was, nearly having a near death experience the other day. Became intimately acquainted with intimations of mortality. They say there are no atheists on operating tables, but there I was, putting my trust in a competent surgeon and hundreds of years of science and medical technology rather than the spaghetti monster, and I seemed to get by alright. No bolt of lightning plunging the room into darkness or anything like that.

But it got me thinking about thinking about death. A little while ago I had read one of those articles, the kind I must have read a thousand times, in which the punch line was "of course humans are the only animals that know about their own death" or words to that effect. But there, in a room that was a much less pleasant (and scarier) version of the Starship Enterprise bridge, I began to question this truism.

Humans the only animals that know about their own death? How do we know that? Not elephants, or whales, or gorillas, or dolphins, or chimps, or bears, or pigs? Are we sure? Mourning (including dogs for their human owners) by birds and mammals for lost or dead young ones, lost friends, is a sure sign of awareness of death and its completeness. How do we know that the understanding of death as loss does not extend to the individual elephant or gorilla being aware that its time must come? Why would it not?

No, I think this is yet another attempt by humans to assert their own superiority, their own separateness from the rest of the animal kingdom from which some are so reluctant to understand we evolved. At various times humans have been said to be different to animals (that is, all animals) because of tool-using, the presence of two brain hemispheres, the ability to feel pain, an opposable thumb, language use. None of these hold up after further study (even chickens, it has been found, have separate brain hemispheres) and so the religious among us now come down to just the knowledge that the bell tolls for all of us as proof of our superiority. More wishful thinking.

In fact it seems to me that knowledge of death is more advanced among animal species. The behavior exhibited by many animal species when a member of their family group dies or is killed suggests that they know for a fact that death has a sting, that it is forever, and that the bones that are eventually all that remains of a once loved mother or baby are indeed all that remains.

Religious humans, on the other hand, don't understand that they will die. They refuse to use the word die, but speak of someone "passing", of being "reunited" with previously dead family members, of being resurrected (whatever that might mean). We don't pass, by the way, we D.I.E, and we won't be seeing anyone over the other side - I'm sure the animals know that. So perhaps that is the ultimate difference between animals and humans. All animals know that death is final. Some humans fool themselves with talk of life after death. Needs a bit more evolution, old Homo sapiens, to start seeing the world as it really is - a matter of life and death.

Some people think the Watermelon Blog is a matter of life and death, but it's much more serious than that.

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