chapter  2
24 Pages

Traditional Patterns of Death

The members of the human species are, as far as we know, the only living crea tures aware at some level, from a fairly early age, that they will die, and the only creatures as well who are organized into societies that spend a good bit of time dealing with death in one form or another-organizing beliefs about it, trying to prevent it, developing rituals to accommodate its impact, even deliberately using it in punishment. Members of other species sometimes develop a perception that they are dying-sometimes, as with elephants, wandering away from the group to

complete the process. Some seem to react with sadness when death occurs-dogs even lamenting the death of a master or mistress-across species lines. But the generalized awareness, the consciousness of death even when it is not immedi ately present, and the deep need to explain and ritualize the experience, seem to be distinctly human. It is not surprising that debates over death figure strongly in the world’s first known piece of literature, the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic of the third millennium BCE.