I've just had a chance to read Michael P's fascinating post of earlier this week, on 'Ape Pieta.' I had heard brief mentions of the practices described in the piece that Michal quotes, but only on reading the detail in this piece, and taking a look at some of the images linked in it, have I come to appreciate how profoundly affecting they are. How marvelous, indeed, are our nonhuman cousins! I'm so very grateful to Michael for posting this.
I've also got two quick comments to add in response to the piece which might be of interest here.
The first comment is this: Just as the studies reported in Michael's post indicate that we as humans will do well to avoid pretending to uniqueness in our capacities to mourn the losses of our fellows and venerate them, in view of chimpanzees' manifestly doing the same in response to losses of their own, so will observers of chimpanzees themselves do well to avoid pretending that these practices are confined to anthropoids. For there is a wealth of literature, reportage, and of course (scads of) anecdotal evidence tending to demostrate beyond reasonable doubt that all manner of animals additional to humans mourn the losses of loved ones -- both intra- and inter-species loved ones -- and that they likewise experience multiple cognate forms of care. They love, they miss, they pine, they experience joy upon reuniting, they are downcast when 'in trouble,' & cet. & cet.
What is more, much of the evidence to which I allude involves, not only vocal or gestural expressions of such forms of care, but also what often appear to be evocatively symbolic ones too -- as in, for example, the recently reported case of a dog who transferred the entirety of her horde of socks, toys, and other hidden treasures to the bed of her human companian while that companion was convalescing after a bout with cancer, only to return the goods to their hiding place once the companion had recovered. I think, then, that the story that's begun to be told in the piece quoted in Michael's post will ultimately prove to be much richer even than is apparent in that piece itself.
This takes me to the second comment.
The second comment has to do with the third and final paragraph of the piece quoted in Michael's post. While I by and large admire the first two of the piece's paragraphs, I find the third a bit puzzling in juxtaposition with them: At the end of the second paragraph, the author suggests that the chimpanzee practice of carrying dead infants on their backs is a 'culturally transmitted tradition[ ]' among the chimps. Immediately thereafter, in beginning the third paragraph, the author enjoins us to 'ponder the significance of the fact that chimpanzees, aware of their mortality, grieve and mourn without religious symbol or ritual.'
Leaving to one side the fact that nothing in the tales the author recounts in the first two paragraphs seems to speak one way or the other about any 'aware[ness] of their own mortality,' what I find puzzling here is this: the 'cultrually transmitted tradition[ ]' to which the author refers would seem itself just to be the 'religious ... ritual' that he declares to be 'absent,' would it not? Indeed, it seems as pure and elemental a ritual practice as one can imagine -- at least assuming, as seems altogether safe to assume, that the chimpanzees are aware of the fact that their mummified infants are indeed deceased. Why, then, not view chimp practice as itself a form of religiosity in the only honest sense of that word -- not a 'nascent' religiosity, as the author countenances, but a religiosity much more pure and august than any of the cheap cant we encounter each day at the hands of human (political and) 'religious authorities' all over the airwaves and all over the planet?
I recall, as an undergraduate, attending a series of what were billed as 'Asian film masterpieces.' One of these old films, from 1960s Japan I think, was set in the late-mid-1940s. It concerned a hermit who inhabited one of the islands on which thousands of Japanese and American soldiers had died in the Second War. All that this man did, day after day, was bury dead soldiers, irrespective of their nationalities. Nobody else was doing this -- or, if I recall correctly, even living on the island. The man said nothing, asked for nothing, asserted nothing, denied nothing, perhaps even wondered nothing. He simply buried the dead.
This was the most stirring bit of liturgy, I think, that I've ever witnessed, immeasurably more powerful than anything I've experienced in any formal ecclesial context. But the lesson I take away from it is not that which the author of the piece Michael posted seems to take from chimpanzee practice. The real lesson, I think, is that there is no more need, or warrant, for asserting a metaphysical absence than there is for asserting a metaphysical presence in the face of such stirringly resolute payments of love and respect as those we find among our fellow creatures including chimps, dogs, and hermits. It strikes me as profanation -- it's bullsh** -- to put any metaphysical spin what ever on these powerful acts. They are enough. They speak for themselves.
In a way, it might be that the sensibility which leads one to react in the way that I do to this third paragraph is that of what Rabbi Soloveitchik, I believe, called 'Halakhic Man' -- the observant who is averse to waxing romantic, rhapsodic, or metaphysical about matters religious, preferring simply to 'pay the proper respects,' 'in the prescribed manner.' It is also, of course, distinctly possible that I've got Rabbi S wrong. But if I am right, then my guess is that the good Rabbi would also have found the anecdotes to which I've alluded here, as well as those recounted in Michael's post, fit for an appreciative nod. For all of them have in common the fact that those 'paying the proper respects' do not purport to be doing anything magical -- they do not claim to turn water into wine or wine into blood, they do not pretend to 'change the course of the universe' or 'enter into the divine economy' or anything else of that gaudy sort. They simply are fitting. And that is enough.
Warm thanks again to Michael,