Humans aren’t the only species to hold services for their loved ones

Funeral rituals are classified as a cultural universal, a phenomenon in sociology that records particular practices developing in every human society independently. Other examples include religion, dancing, singing, and marriage. All cultures have ceremonies for the passing of a loved one. This was not created by one group, but rather has manifested naturally among all human groups.

The majority of people have experienced a death of a loved one. Funeral services are a milestone in the journey of grief, often providing closure for the family and friends of the deceased. It not only cements the reality of the death, but allows one to be surrounded by others experiencing the same emotions from the loss. People have a natural reverence for the deceased, performing cleansing rituals and ceremoniously burying or cremating the decedent.

Is holding funeral services a core trait of being human? Scientists have often defined human beings in opposition to animals, citing characteristics that are unique. The distinction of using tools was often cited as purely human, yet the discovery of chimpanzees using tools by Jane Goodall in 1960 dramatically changed that. Funeral services were also long thought to be an exclusive trait until 2003, when scientists discovered that elephants also perform rituals for their dead.

When an elephant dies, the herd will touch the body of the deceased with their trunks, as if to lift it, then will cover the body with leaves, dirt, and tree branches. They will often hold a vigil over 2-3 days before moving onward. What is most surprising is the behavior of herds who did not know the deceased. Should elephants encounter a deceased, they will stop to pay respects and perform the same behavior, even for a stranger.

Elephants are not the only animals to pay respects to the deceased. Many others including dolphins, chimpanzees, and even magpies are noted to have rituals around death. Magpies, like elephants, will touch the deceased with their beaks before covering the body in grass and branches.

Funeral services may not be unique to human beings, but it is a natural instinct to care for the deceased as a part of the grieving process. While the loss of a loved one can be emotionally devastating, holding services is a critical center of human culture that will remain an invaluable part of navigating grief.