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Memorializing the More-than-Human: Grief as a Form of Activism
From memorials for family pets, to public mourning spaces for more abstract entities like the environment, people are increasingly using memorials as a form of activism, and as a way to acknowledge their grief.
On a cold but sunny day in February, I meet Rex. Rex is a good boy, his kind eyes look up at me from where he lays, paws and tail reclining peacefully, cast in bronze, alongside the cemetery roadway. Rex has been a resident at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn for over 100 years, where he resides next to his owner, facing out toward the road to greet visitors who are on a stroll. Even in the afterlife, Rex continues to collect sticks from visitors who pick them up along their walk through the almost 500-acre cemetery and bring them to rest on his paws. Rex only has two sticks on his paws when I visit him, but it’s not odd for Rex’s pile of sticks to tower over his head, which I’m sure that visitors reach down to pet just as I do.
Rex is just one example of the urge to memorialize more-than-human others. From memorials to family pets like Rex, to public mourning spaces for more abstract entities like the environment, humans have historically and are increasingly utilizing the work of memorialization to recognize the grievability of more-than-human others. Scholar Judith Butler defines grievability as a prerequisite for “the life that matters.” In other words, if something or someone isn’t grievable, then their life does not have value in our culture and they will be prone to oppression, mistreatment, or their needs will simply be ignored.
Viewing Rex’s grave prompts me to ask: how does recognizing the value of more-than-human others as worthy of grief improve our relationship with the more-than-human and make us better co-habitants of Earth?
The phrase “more-than-human,” popularized by ecologist and philosopher David Abram, seeks to recognize all forms of life and realms of existence—from the most miniscule mushrooms and smallest insects to the grandest mountain ranges and deepest bodies of water—as valued co-habitants alongside humans. More-than-human studies endeavors to treat more-than-human others with equity and respect in line with the relationships modeled by Indigenous communities in and beyond the Americas. This equity and respect extends not just to finding ways to live more peacefully alongside more-than-human others, it also encompasses careful consideration of more-than-human suffering and death.
As a rhetorician, I encountered the more-than-humaness of Rex through the lens of communication and relationality. Rhetoric is a specific sub-field of communication that focuses on the power of civic discourse and cultural practices to influence the way that we make meaning of life or—in this case—death. More-than-human rhetoric intersects with rituals of death and dying every time we consider how we are going to treat a shrinking natural habitat or handle the death of a creaturely friend.
With pet ownership on the rise, memorializing our household pets like Rex has become an increasingly common practice in the West. In fact, pet-ownership is one of the easiest avenues for an introduction into more-than-human relationships. We take more-than-human animals into our homes and yards, forming relationships that are in many ways mutually beneficial with cats, dogs, fish, rodents, birds, and even domestic farm animals. We make decisions that impact our more-than-human companion’s lives and when they die we find ways to continue remembering them through pet cremation, funerals, and memorials.
Part of the great power that resides in more-than-human memorials is their ability to evoke general feelings of remembrance and mourning despite being specific. The sticks that stack up on Rex’s paws are a testament to this notion. Each stick is simultaneously an act of remembering Rex as the specific dog the memorial is made to while also remembering and grieving the loss of pets in general. As I leave a stick on Rex’s paws to reward him for being a good boy, I’m also leaving a stick for Gitcha who my dad used to call “Catdog” because of the way she would fetch small toys and bring them for you to throw again.
I’ve never had a dog but growing up my family had a cat named Gitcha. Gitcha was really my dad’s cat, though she tolerated my mom just as well. She did not, however, have much interest in children. Gitcha was already middle-aged in cat years when I was born and started to become senile by the time I was in middle school. One day, my dad took Gitcha away and she didn’t come back. Part of the great power that resides in more-than-human memorials is their ability to evoke general feelings of remembrance and mourning despite being specific. The sticks that stack up on Rex’s paws are a testament to this notion. So, as I leave a stick on Rex’s paws to reward him for being a good boy, I’m also leaving a stick for Gitcha. It’s not hard to imagine that other visitors to Green-Wood Cemetery stop while on their walk to leave sticks for Rex and then carry on their way while reminiscing about their own more-than-human companions who have come to pass.
It is perhaps easier to recognize the grievability of household pets because we live so closely alongside them, but all animals and more-than-human others deserve to be grieved and remembered. In London, the Animals in War memorial stands as a reminder of all the horses and dogs that have given their lives as mounts, scouts, and guides during wartimes for the sake of human betterment. Observing the memorial does not invoke a specific animal but instead asks us to consider all the more-than-human sacrifice that our daily comfort and routine has been built upon and in many ways continues to depend upon. Countless more-than-human animals and others are slaughtered around the world each day in the name of feeding our ever-growing population or allowing us access to valuable materials such as silk (from silk worms) or carmine (from beetles). There are no memorials to these small creatures, who nevertheless give their lives so that we can have luxurious textiles, vibrant make-up products, and food dyes.
My reflection here is not meant to persuade a total attitudinal shift toward militant veganism or some other ideology like ahimsa that advocates for total nonviolence toward all creatures. Rather, I ask that we consider the ways in which memorials like Rex’s, like Hachiko’s in Japan, like the Animals in War memorial, can bring our attention to the validity of grieving and memorializing more-than-human others as a form of activism. It’s unlikely that we will stop eating burgers here in the United States and start consuming only plant-based meals, but we could open conversations about more ethical ways of raising, treating, and killing livestock and other more-than-human creatures that provide us with resources.
Memorials like Rex’s still give us pause. We are not used to seeing animals memorialized in the same spaces as humans. Why? Why shouldn’t animals who are appreciated in life be grieved in death? They are worthy of such treatment.
The same can be said, by extension, about the environment. In 2019 there was a public mourning and memorializing for the glacier Ok in Iceland. Like many glacial bodies that used to cover vast stretches of Earth, Ok was shrinking in size, melting in hotter-than-ever summers and barely accruing any additional ice during short-lived winters. In our lifetime, glaciers like Ok are rapidly shrinking and vanishing, taking with them habitats for animals and stores of water that have been regulating ocean levels for longer than humans have walked the Earth. And yet most of the human population has paid very little attention, let alone grieved. Events like the public mourning for Ok demonstrate the desire and readiness to memorialize and grieve more-than-human others that we recognize as co-habitants of this Earth with us.
How did I get from a simple bronze statue of a dog named Rex to talk of memorializing glaciers? This is the power of more-than-human memorials. When we are stopped in our tracks by a memorial that mourns a group of others that we do not normally think about in death, we are forced to reconsider how we understand mourning and grievability to begin with. While the entry point to understanding the value of more-than-human life and the grievability of more-than-human death for many may be through memorials to pets and other animals that closely cohabitat with humans, the potential of these memorials to open up conversations and acts of recognition for far larger, greater, and more pervasive more-than-human others that are otherwise invisible is grand.
It would seem that it’s not just sticks resting on Rex’ paws, but potentially our whole relationship with more-than-human others as we know it.
Cheyenne Zaremba is a Rhetoric PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts & Sciences at Penn State University. They research the rhetoric of death and dying through the frameworks of cultural studies, performance studies, materiality, and identity. Cheyenne is particularly interested in how representations and performances of bodies in death reflect and shape marginalized experiences of death as yet another expression of inequity and inequality.