Playing Possum: How Animals Understand Death

How animals conceive of death and dying—and what it can teach us about our own relationships with mortality


Published (US):
Oct 15, 2024
Published (UK):
Jan 7, 2025
5.5 x 8.5 in.
18 b/w illus. 2 tables.
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When the opossum feels threatened, she becomes paralyzed. Her body temperature plummets, her breathing and heart rates drop to a minimum, and her glands simulate the smell of a putrefying corpse. Playing Possum explores what the opossum and other creatures can teach us about how we and other species understand mortality, and demonstrates that the concept of death, far from being a uniquely human attribute, is widespread in the animal kingdom.

With humor and empathy, Susana Monsó tells the stories of ants who attend their own funerals, chimpanzees who clean the teeth of their dead, dogs who snack on their caregivers, crows who avoid the places where they saw a carcass, elephants obsessed with collecting ivory, and whales who carry their dead for weeks. Monsó, one of today’s leading experts on animal cognition and ethics, shows how there are more ways to conceive of mortality than the human way, and challenges the notion that the only emotional reactions to death worthy of our attention are ones that resemble our own.

Blending philosophical insight with new evidence from behavioral science and comparative psychology, Playing Possum dispels the anthropocentric biases that cloud our understanding of the natural world, and reveals that, when it comes to death and dying, we are just another animal.