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Why Don’t We Grieve for Extinct Species?

An impassioned group of artists and activists is creating rituals for coping with extinction and environmental loss

By Jeremy Hance

In early 2010, artist, activist and mother, Persephone Pearl, headed to the Bristol Museum. Like many concerned about the fate of the planet, she was in despair over the failed climate talks in Copenhagen that winter. She sat on a bench and looked at a stuffed animal behind glass: a thylacine. Before then, she’d never heard of the marsupial carnivore that went extinct in 1936.

Passenger Pigeon Chalk Artphoto by University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment / FlickrA commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction at the University of Michigan.

“Here was this beautiful mysterious lost creature locked in a glass case,” she said. “It struck me suddenly as unbearably undignified. And I had this sudden vision of smashing the glass, lifting the body out, carrying the thylacine out into the fields, stroking its body, speaking to it, washing it with my tears, and burying it by a river so that it could return to the earth.”

Pearl felt grief, deep grief, over the loss of a creature she’d never once seen in life, a species that had been shot to extinction because European settlers had deemed it vermin. Yet, how do we grieve for extinct species when there are no set rituals, no extinction funerals, no catharsis for the pain caused by a loss that in many ways is simply beyond human comprehension? We have been obliterating species for over ten thousand years – beginning with the megafauna of the Pleistocene like woolly rhinos, short-faced bears, and giant sloths – yet we have no way of mourning them.

Still, Pearl didn’t push the grief under or ignore it. Instead, she sought to share it. In 2011 Pearl, who is the co-director of the arts group, ONCA, and the theatre group Feral in Brighton, helped organize the first ever Remembrance Day for Lost Species. Held every November 30th, it’s since become a day for activists, artists and mourners to find creative ways to share their grief for extinct species – and reinvigorate their love for the natural world.

“We hope the Remembrance events will function as funerals for humans do,” Rachel Porter, a co-founder of Remembrance Day for Lost Species and a movement therapist, said. “Such rituals are ancient, embedded within us. We are just placing this common ritual into an unfamiliar context.”

Most of these events are not large – they are not thousands of people marching on government buildings – but more like the number of people who would attend a funeral for a loved one. They are communal and largely intimate events, full of things you might expect and others you might not: such as burning pyres, chanting, poetry reading, bell tolling, and processionals.

But there are no rules to the Remembrance Day for Lost Species and anyone can start a public event or hold a private ceremony. This year, they are going on all over the world, including a dinner for the dodo in London, a poetry reading in Berlin, and a remembrance ritual for the thylacine outside of Brisbane, Australia.

Graphic designer and art therapist Julia Peddie, who is hosting the thylacine ritual in Australia this year, said she remembers as a child first learning about how humans wiped out the dodo – and how the knowledge crushed her.

“I can only imagine how children feel now, witnessing such enormous losses, and wonder if they are desensitizing in order to cope,” she said. “Remembrance Day for Lost Species provides an opportunity for children and adults to connect with their grief, and in doing so, reclaim a part of themselves.”

The Vitality of Grief

But let’s be honest, many of us probably find the idea of attending a funeral or walking in a processional for a vanished species a little foolish. It may even make us feel something more profound: vulnerable. But Pearl said this is only to be expected.

“If grieving for a lost person is difficult, grieving for ecosystems and species is entirely novel and challenging.”

She said that as a global society we have lost the knowledge of how to grieve even for our closest loved ones, quoting teacher and author Stephen Jenkinson who writes that our society is “death phobic and grief illiterate.”

“We struggle to talk about death and dying,” Pearl said. “It is seen as a terrible thing, to be avoided at all costs. We are afraid of upsetting people, and of awkward conversations.”

But at what cost? According to Porter, our inability to show grief – or even allow ourselves to feel it – may lead to mental illness.

“The grief might become misplaced if it’s not recognized and misguided grief could be destructive, it could manifest as depression or anxiety.”

In contrast, displaying grief can result in catharsis. In an emotional process first described by Aristotle over 2,000 years ago, pent up, intense feelings are allowed safe release through ritual. Afterwards, mourners are able to move forward, maybe even with more wisdom than before.

“Actual grief is hardly practiced today,” Megan Hollingsworth, a poet and founder of the collaborative art project ex·tinc·tion wit·ness, said. “If it were, children would neither be murdered in war nor would they go hungry and homeless in the streets of the world’s ‘wealthiest’ nations. Water would be protected. The desires of ‘grown’ men and women would not ever trump the needs of any single child, let alone whole communities.”

Hollingsworth, also one of the founders of the Remembrance Day for Lost Species, will be holding a bell tolling ceremony in Montana on the 30th.

Tear Your Hair for the Extinct

But grief doesn’t occur only when we lose loved ones. Ask anyone who has seen a local forest they once played in as a child demolished for another cookie-cutter development or has watched as fewer bees and butterflies show up in their garden each summer. Or ask any conservationist who has to witness year-after-year as the species they work with slowly vanish, ask any marine biologist about coral reefs or any Arctic biologist about sea ice. Grief can extend far beyond our human parochialism.

street art, depicting the extinct Thylacine, Shoreditchphoto by duncan c / FlickrThe thylacine went extinct in 1936. This year there will be remembrance ritual for the species outside of Brisbane, Australia.

“We realized that there was a hunger for a way of grieving ecological loss through ritual,” said Porter who in 2011 directed a Funeral for Lost Species through her group, Feral Theatre. This was an outdoor theatrical performance in a churchyard that included various traditional forms of mourning and tilted between somber and whimsical.

Porter believes many people are simply “stuck in a kind of denial” when it comes to extinction, biodiversity loss, and environmental crises.

“If we face it honestly and fully we have to face our own collective shadow, our out-of-control destructive urges and acts. These are terrible, terrifying things to face alone,” she said.

Part of this denial is also due to our growing disconnect from nature.

“Many humans now solely interact with domesticated animals and plants. Some have no experience whatsoever of intact forest, field, and aquatic community. The total loss of other community members, their families, and life affirming ways then is an utterly distant abstraction,” Hollingsworth said. “Yet in grief, as in love, humans are wired for intimacy. “

According to the founders of the Remembrance Day for Lost Species, grieving in a ritualized ceremony removes our isolation from other mourners – we are after all grieving communally – and cuts through the denial.

“For those in denial bearing witness to acts of remembrance and honoring reminds them non-aggressively of something that they are pushing away. That is why making these rituals public is so very important,” Porter said.

In the end such rituals may help people transform their perfectly understandable anger – which is “connected to the disregard and destruction of the natural world,” according to Porter – into something ultimately productive.

Providing a real outlet for grief could help people finally take action and change the world for the better.

“Potentially, in our sadness, we can vow not to continue to let it happen, and acknowledge the role we humans are playing in causing the extinctions,” Peddie said. “Grief can provide a pathway for taking responsibility, and making a commitment to take action.”

Such rituals also allow us to view extinction in a novel way. So much of the information we receive about extinctions and biodiversity decline today comes from science, not from personal experience in the wild. And while science is necessary, it is often represented in wonky papers or press release that are bloodless, cold, even inhuman – a recitation of facts rather than a proper elegy for the lost.

“Telling the stories of recently extinct species is a way of capturing people’s imaginations to this end,” said Pearl. “It’s not science or statistics, it’s history, it’s real life – and in an age of cultural amnesia, storytelling inspired by historical events is a way to learn lessons from the past.”

But many probably fear that allowing themselves to feel the grief – really feel it – will result in a personal collapse. Hollingsworth said that an environmental studies professor once told her: “‘I can’t think of this as grief. That would be endless.’”

But this is “where the misconception lies,” according to Hollingsworth. Grieving doesn’t bring endless suffering, but healing and health.

“What happens when I don’t grieve someone’s death? What does it mean not to feel or express sorrow when someone passes unnecessarily due to my negligence? Just the thought of this is chilling to me as the sociopath is brought to mind,” she said.

Grief Can Be Funny Too

This doesn’t mean such events have to be somber and drowned in tears. No emotion is wrong, according to the founders of the Remembrance Day for Lost Species. They are not afraid to throw humor and whimsy into their rituals.

“Often at human funerals people share funny stories about the dead person and it gives a relief, a release from weight of loss, and it can bring a celebratory feel,” said Porter.

Laughter can be incredibly powerful, even during a ritual mourning.

“Humor allows us to softly break through denial and isolation, to damp down the tempers fire, to create space in between the agony, the fear, the chaos,” said Porter.

Recently, Pearl attended the Stories of the Anthropocene Festival in Stockholm where she held a remembrance ceremony for the thylacine. Attendees were asked to share their stories about extinction – but first they had to step through a glitter curtain.

“If you can make people laugh, you are halfway to love. You can take people to deep places. You can encourage them to take risks,” she said.

But somberness is okay, too, the founders insist. It all depends on what you are hoping to create within the context of the ritual.

Grieving in the Anthropocene

Legend says the world’s last thylacine died cold and alone. The story is that it was mistakenly locked out of its nighttime quarters at the zoo in Hobart, Tasmania during an unusually cold night in 1936. The animal, which was never even identified as a male or female, perished from exposure. That was 80 years ago this year.

While the last thylacine may not have actually died from the cold, it certainly died in a kind of loneliness that is almost impossible for humans – seven billion and rising – to comprehend. It was, after all, an endling. The last of its kind.

And yet do we barely remember it, let alone weep for it.

Julia Peddie said the 80th Anniversary of the extinction of the thylacine “went fairly unnoticed in the mainstream media” even in its native Australia.

Despite little media around the anniversary, Australia still has a lot of “nostalgia” for the thylacine, said Peddie, to the extent that some people believe it still inhabits the wild lands of Tasmania.

Perhaps, this is a kind of denial in action, an inability to accept the extinction of what once was; a denial that may continue to allow Australians – and people around the world – to ignore the losses going on right in front of them.

Australia is an epicenter of extinction. It has the highest mammal loss of any country on Earth. Since European arrival, the country has lost at least 30 species of mammal. And another was lost just this year: the Bramble Cay melomys, the world’s first mammal known to have gone extinct due to climate change.

 “The stories of lost species remind us that things do end, they do die, that we are causing irrevocable and deeply distressing changes – but that the ending’s not yet written for the stories of rhinoceros, of hedgehogs, of phytoplankton,” said Pearl.

So, really, why don’t we grieve for the passenger pigeon, the golden toad, or the Yangtze River dolphin? Or how about Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog which just vanished from the Earth in September? Why don’t we rend our garments for the woolly mammoth, or tear our hair for the dodo or smear our windows with ash for the great moas that once roamed New Zealand? It can’t hurt. It could only heal.

“We need to imagine and invent new rituals for the Anthropocene,” said Pearl. “What would a memorial for the Caspian tiger or the elephant bird look like? A memorial for the Great Barrier Reef? For 350 parts per million of atmospheric CO2?”

The age of the Anthropocene is an age of grief, put simply. Not showing, sharing or indeed feeling that grief will make it all the more unbearable. But a collective keening may be key to moving forward and creating a new society that fully respects and cherishes the millions of life forms that call this planet home.

The Guardian
The Guardian UK, one of Britain's top daily newspapers, provides coverage of international environmental issues. Earth Island Journal is a member of the Guardian's Environment News Network.

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