Learning about Death from Elephants

I assume that much of our intuitive and instinctual heritage of knowledge is inaccessible to us because we have learned modes of knowing that override our intuitions. Shamans and indigenous cultures may teach us what every animal knows about death, or we may pursue the inner realm via meditation…

Or we may be able to learn from animals themselves. Here we are privileged to witness an elephant funeral.

The best they’re able to do in a zoo, where keepers have erected barriers to keep the living from the dead.


We pay homage to our dead with thoughts and abstractions and rituals, and elephants  probably do the same. We can’t know what they’re thinking but one thing we can get see for sure is that it is important to touch the dead, to handle their dried flesh and bones. We might speculate about what is being transferred from the dead to the living by physical touch.

Contrast this to Western undertaking. The body is handled only with throwaway plastic gloves until it is safely in the ground, or in a furnace. Even after autoclaving, ashes of the dead are considered creepy, if not unsanitary.

In Tibet,

… the custom is for close relatives of the deceased to carry his body to a hilltop, where it is offered to vultures. This is sky burial

This article was published last week in the journal Primates (apparently elephants have honorary status), and this popular summary was released by San Diego Zool.

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