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Why Humans and Insects Keep Holding Funerals for Insects

We have surprisingly overlapping death traditions.

(Photo: SKphotographer/shutterstock.com

In April 2012, tiny memorials started appearing on the streets of Minneapolis.  Bundles of flowers no bigger than matchsticks, teddy bears the size of peanuts and even miniature portraits could be found arrayed around the bodies of wasps, cockroaches, flies and moths (depicted in both their larval and adult stages). Was this the work of a distressed Buddhist monk lamenting the loss of reincarnated souls? Or that of an obsessed insectophile sharing their grief at the incidental slaughter of their tiny friends? Alas it was not so serendipitous: The memorials were the work of an advertising agency that sought less to mourn than to create some promotional buzz.

This was, however, not a new idea. Two thousand years earlier the ancient poet Virgil was said to have held a funeral for his pet fly at his house in Rome. Eulogies were read, poetry was recited and professional mourners wailed as the fly was entombed in Virgil’s garden. However Virgil’s reasons for this public display of grief were less about garnering publicity than keeping his property safe. At the time the Roman powers-that-be were confiscating the estates of the rich. Only one exception was given: if the estate held a burial plot on its grounds. By burying his fly Virgil saved his home.

Yet as bizarre as these incidences of full-blown insect funerals might seem, they both tap into a tradition that links the funerary rites of humans to those of bugs, and vice versa.

An Egyptian fly necklace. (Photo: Walters Art Museum/Public Domain)

For much of recorded history insects have been linked to death, but not in a good way. Ancient Egyptians were buried with necklaces of stone-carved flies to ward off maggots that were perceived as a threat to their spirit, or Ka. Ancient Greek cults sprung up to worship gods who could chase flies away. Flies were generally seen as pestilential pests who ruined corpses and threatened one’s afterlife; the devil is, after all, known as Lord of the Flies.

However a change in this antagonism occurred with the Moche civilization that existed in northern Peru from about 100 ADAD to 750 AD. Although best known for their saucy pottery, the Moche are also the oldest example of a people incorporating insects into their funereal process. Forensic entomologists have found Moche graves littered with insect remains (blowflies and corpse beetles),  suggesting that their bodies were left to rot for three to four weeks prior to burial. Unlike the ancient Egyptians, who did everything in their power to prevent flies from destroying a corpse through talismans and embalming, the Moche seemingly venerated corpse-eating insects. It is thought that they expected the spirit of the deceased to be transferred into the maggots that feasted on the body, and then into adult flies. The soul of the dead could thus leave its old human body and be reincarnated anew. Flies thus became an intrinsic part of human burial rites.

Yet while only a handful of human cultures coopted insects into their funeral rites, much more widespread is the way that insects reflect human behavior in their own dealings with their deceased.

Painted facade of the Huaca de la Luna, built by the Moche people of Peru. (Photo: Martin St-Amant (S23678)/CC BY 3.0)

Of all the thousands of different animals that exist on the planet only humans and social insects—bees, wasps, ants and termites—have developed sophisticated social behaviors to deal with their dead. Most of us know of the strange caste systems that spring up in hives and nests: the queens lay eggs, soldiers fight intruders, workers construct the nest and drones do very little at all. Lesser known among the castes are the undertakers, yet their role is of supreme importance.

To understand why this is try imagining a nest of leafcutter ants. This nest may contain two million workers living there at any one time. While many die outside the nest, thousands of workers die within it every day. If these bodies were left inside not only would they block the nest with their bodies but they would also become vectors for diseases that could threaten the wellbeing of the entire colony. As such a small proportion of the populace (around 1-2 percent in the case of bees) take on an undertaking role to dispose of the dead.

The specifics of an undertaker job vary from order to order and species to species, but whether bee or termite there are some established steps in the undertaking process. Firstly a corpse is detected by an undertaker through the change in its chemical signature. Then it is thoroughly inspected by the undertaker, who gives the body a good lick. After death is ascertained the undertaker swings into action, grasping the body by its legs, mandibles, wings, head or tongue and carrying them it out of the nest.

Leafcutter ants have specific processes for removing dead ants from nests. (Photo: ell2550/shutterstock.com)

Here, there are differences. While ant undertakers lift their corpses above their heads, bees prefer to drag the bodies along the ground until they get outside of their nest at which point they fly off and dump the body far away. Ants meanwhile take their dead to conspicuous ant cemeteries located away from the nest, where the bodies are often laid in evenly spaced and neatly stacked piles.

These burial rituals have fascinated insect-spotters since ancient times. The natural historian, Pliny, was among the first to compare ant burial rites to humans. However it was in the 19th century when amateur entomology combined with the Victorian propensity for morbidity, hygiene and social convention that ant burials took on a greater importance. Dozens of studies described the process, many of them in wide-eyed terms like that of the Reverend W. F. White’s 1884 tome, Ants And Their Ways in which the good reverend terms the ants “little people” and assures his readers that ants “are most careful as to their own toilet.”

In his book the Rev. White describes a particular ant burial in terms closely akin to a human burial. “Two of the ants advanced and took up the dead body of one of their comrades; then two others and so on, until all were ready to march,” he writes.“First walked two ants bearing a body, then two without a burden; then two others with another dead ant, and so on, until the line was extended to about forty pairs, and the procession now moved slowly onwards, followed by an irregular body of about 200 ants.”

The cover of the 1884 book Ants and Their Ways. (Photo: Public Domain)

Perhaps one can see in the willfully anthropomorphic language used by Victorians the lingering traces of the insectile link to reincarnation that prospered millennia before. After all, it is a small step from being reincarnated as an insect to having an insect act like a human. For the Victorian entomologist the undertaking behavior of insects was a sign of something profound about human behavior, something that even the street bug memorials in Minneapolis gestured towards. Namely, they are exploring the idea that one of our most serious human rites is being enacted even among the smallest of creation, right beneath our feet.