On What Makes us Human…

In an ancient lakebed in southern Australia some 42,000 years ago, the body of one very tall man was carefully placed in what anthropologists believe is the oldest intentional Homo sapiens burial site. Although it is now known that even our ancestral kin, the neanderthals, also buried their dead with care, laying personal artifacts such as stone tools beside them in their graves.

Along with our big brain cases and opposable thumbs, another characteristic of Homo sapiens that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is the ritualized mourning of the deceased. The behavior humans exhibit when grieving for their dead, behavior that is commonplace in just about every culture around the globe, is illustrative of conscience and sympathy, sensitivity and depth of feeling.

We humans take our dead, encase them and lower their boxed body into the ground. We pray or chant, lay flowers on their grave. Or, alternately, the deceased is placed in a kiln, reduced to ash then set adrift on a breeze or enveloped in porcelain and placed on a mantle. But the soul of the dead cannot be contained and evaporates, squelched by a lack of electrical pulses.

I believe we lose two people with each person’s death: The outer self and the inner one. We lose the fleshy person we hugged, loved and laughed with in life. And we lose the secret, internal person, who existed with private fears, loves unrequited, dreams yet attained-their unshared stories, real and imagined, forever lost.

We Homo sapiens  demonstrate respect for life by respecting our dead. Conversely, we demonstrate respect for the dead when we respect the living. And we do this in the wake of the loss of a loved one by bringing together family and community to mourn and share their grief. This is what separates man from beasts. This lay at the very heart of culture and civilization.

Sunset in the high desert. Ranchita, California. Photo by Angel La Canfora.
Sunset in the high desert. Ranchita, California. Photo by Angel La Canfora.