When a Jewish person dies, according to tradition, a member of a group called the chevra kadisha stays with the body from death until burial, continually reciting passages from the book of Psalms. For those in the Catholic church, friends and family members gather together in the presence of the deceased in a ceremony called a wake. Similarly, when ancient Romans died, relatives immediately gathered around the body, reciting lamentations. The body was kept close, in the atrium of the family home, until the funeral procession began.
These behaviours transcend cultural boundaries. While the details vary from tradition to tradition, the pattern is undeniable: humans seem to find value in guarding or watching the bodies of the deceased for some period of time following death.
But as we are beginning to discover, these behaviours may transcend species boundaries as well.
On 10 October 2003, a researcher watched as a female elephant named Eleanor collapsed. Her swollen trunk had been dragging on the ground while her ears and legs displayed evidence of another recent fall. One of her tusks was broken. An elephant named Grace, a member of a different social group, galloped towards Eleanor and tried to heave Eleanor back to her feet with her massive tusks, but Eleanor's back legs were too weak. The rest of the herd had moved on, but Grace remained with Eleanor at least another hour, until the sun disappeared below the horizon and night fell over Kenya. Eleanor died the following morning at 11am.
The parade of elephants that followed may – in some deep, fundamental way – be no different from those who gather to pay respects to a dignitary lying in state. Over the course of several days, the carcass was visited by five other elephant groups, including several families that were completely unrelated to Eleanor. The elephants sniffed and poked the body, touching it with their feet and trunks. Even though the carcass had been visited by jackals, hyenas, vultures, and was under the control of lions by the fourth day, the elephants were rarely more than a few hundred metres away during daylight hours.
Since interest in the carcass was not just limited to Eleanor's relatives, the observing scientists tentatively concluded that elephants had a "generalised response" to the dead. Supporting evidence for his conclusion comes from other studies, both observational and experimental. While these behaviours are clearly different from human death rituals, they’re still unique as far as elephant behaviour goes.
But humans and elephants aren’t the only ones to visit the bodies of the recently deceased. On 6 May 2000, a dead female dolphin was spotted on the seabed, 50 metres from the eastern coast of Mikura Island, near Japan. Two adult males remained with the body at all times, leaving the body only briefly to return to the surface to breathe. As the cause of death was unknown, divers attempted to retrieve the body. However, the presence of the two males prevented a successful retrieval. Returning the following day in an additional effort to recover the carcass, the researchers found the same two males guarding the female, again making recovery impossible. By the third day, the carcass had disappeared. Researchers assumed that it had simply drifted into deeper waters.
It’s far from being the only documented instance of dolphin death rituals. On 20 July 2001, a dead sub-adult male was spotted on a nearby seabed, wedged between two large boulders, attended by at least twenty other dolphins, both male and female. As divers attempted to approach and retrieve the body, groups of one to three male dolphins displayed aggressive postures, intercepting the swimmers, though their aggression did not escalate beyond posturing. Like the African elephants, the attending dolphins nudged and pushed at the carcass with their beaks and heads, appearing stressed and agitated. After divers finally retrieved the body, several of the dolphins continued to swim around the boat until it finally left to return to port.