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When Humans Mourn: The Mozart Requiem And A Matter Of Scale

A visitor walks through the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial, in Berlin, Germany.
Sean Gallup
Getty Images
A visitor walks through the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial, in Berlin, Germany.

My husband and I recently attended a production of the Mozart Requiem at James Madison University's gorgeous Forbes Center for the Performing Arts. The stage was full. Conducted by Dr. Jo-Anne van der Vat-Chromy, sung by the JMU Chorale (in which our daughter is a soprano), with music by the JMU Chamber Orchestra, the work was masterful and moving.

Part of the Requiem's force derives from its fascinating origins and the fact that Mozart died at 35 while still composing it. But I think it's more that we, the audience, hear the music and the words — lux perpetua luceat eis, may perpetual light shine upon them — and feel the power of death. Our own vulnerability is exposed.

As I listened that Sunday, I thought about elephants and chimpanzees, horses and cats. The thrust of my research over the last two years, and the thesis of my new book How Animals Grieve, is that animals mourn too. We're not alone in the universe with our grief.

Yet, that's not the whole story. Humans can grieve in unique ways. In my post two weeks ago I promised to return to this aspect of my work, to grapple with the question: How does human mourning diverge from the grief of other animals?

The Requiem points us in the right direction. We anticipate our own death and that of those we love. In the face of that knowledge, or in the aftermath of crushing loss, humans sing through our grief. We dance through our grief. We write our grief down on paper.

Since first embarking on research for the book, I've been drawn to what I think of as the grief genre, especially literature. The Campaign for the American Reader just this week asked me what I've been reading lately. In preparing my response, it hit me how many grief memoirs I've been ploughing through. I described two for the Campaign, but am curating an entire bookshelf now devoted to these volumes.

You might wonder: isn't enough enough? Why immerse yourself in so much sorrow? For me, though, it's not just, or even primarily, about sorrow. What comes across in the books, and in the music too, is love. Just as with animals, where it's love or empathy driving the grief, so of course it is with humans.

The difference is scale. We grieve for people we've never met. We grieve for people who live across the globe from us. We grieve for people separated from our own lives by many decades. I'll never forget the emotion that welled up a few summers ago as I wandered among the 2,711 concrete slabs at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

What I don't think we can say is that the depth of our human grief differs in any dramatic way from the depth of grief felt by elephants, chimpanzees, horses or cats. Our grief is species-specific (as well as individual-specific) in its character, yes. Evolutionarily speaking, the very same can be said of any animal.

But animals from no other species would respond to the Mozart Requiem the way the audience did at JMU two Sundays ago: with a standing ovation and for many of us, I suspect, with a private reflection on life, loss and love.

You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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