Mortality

Death is important to us. When a furry dies, we—as a group—react strongly.

Following the death of a furry, there is often an outpouring of grief. Much of that grief is from furries who have never met the deceased.

Here’s the first comment on Flayrah’s news post about the death of Lemonade Coyote (link), a well-regarded but not especially well-known American furry:

I don’t know the guy, but I’m sorry this happened and I’m sorry for his family.

This comment is typical of the sentiment expressed by many furries in this sort of situation. It’s heartfelt, it’s sweet, and it’s clear that the commenter has been personally affected by the death of a stranger. The only thing that our commenter and Lemonade Coyote have in common is that they are both furries.

It’s unlikely that our commenter would be similarly affected by the death of a non-furry. This is not to say he would be cold-hearted, just that he is less likely to be personally affected by the death of, say, a fellow college student (that he had also never met). As has been discussed in [a][s] in the past by Makyo (Death in the Fandom), there is something about the interconnectedness of our furry community that makes death affect so many of us so greatly.

I think that there are a couple of reasons why death is so important to us as a group.

For starters, furries are young: about 90% of us are younger than 30 (ref). And like any group of young people, furries are more inclined to spend time with peers rather than the wider community.

We live in a world where our social choices, at least outside of high school, are dominated by urbanization and the internet. We are able to socially discriminate more than at any other time in human history: we can choose to hang around with people of similar interests, similar culture, similar socio-economic background, and similar age. Most of us are not required to participate in a community dictated by proximity, such as in a 1600s village, or a tribe.

This shift in the way that humans form social groups began with the Industrial Revolution, just 200 years ago (the blink of an eyelid in evolutionary terms). It is the cause of significant challenges for many people in today’s world. We share our living space with an overwhelming number of people. Because we can only manage a limited number of social connections, we must be choosy. This process of exclusion makes it easy for someone to feel lonely despite being surrounded by people, or to be rejected from a social clique.

I’ve written previously about how society can be alienating (Furry as an Alternative to Religion). I believe that furry provides a rare social environment that is based on inclusion. It’s one of the great things about furry: everyone is welcome by default. Our culture is more in tune with the idea of community as a whole, compared to the wider world.

Our close community means that we may be personally saddened by the death of another furry, even a stranger. We have lost one of our own, and we know that the death will be felt keenly by other furries.

It doesn’t help that furry deaths tend to be sudden. This is due to our demographics: largely young, and largely male.

The leading causes of death among young men in the United States (ref) are (1) Misadventure (or ‘unintentional injuries’, perhaps from a car accident) and (2) Suicide. This is how furries die too.

Death through misadventure and death through suicide are relatable for most of us. We may have done something stupid, or otherwise been in a situation that placed ourselves at risk. And all of us—yes, all of us—have had suicidal thoughts. We can personally relate to these causes of death, and it’s natural for us to fantasize about them.

When we fantasize, when we fixate on death, we are experiencing a mortality crisis. We fantasize about how the moments before death must have felt, we fantasize about last thoughts, we imagine how we might have acted in the same situation. We find death (when it’s relatable but not so close that we’re overcome by grief) to be engaging.

We sometimes feel bad for being engaged by death. We read through last comments on FA, or Twitter, or Livejournal, and try to picture the subsequent events. And then, sometimes, we feel remorseful, as if our reaction were disrespectful. But our reaction—the mortality crisis—is normal, and normally positive.

In the non-furry world, the death of a celebrity can cause a similar outpouring of grief. Despite the celebrity being a stranger, many people feel compelled to express their personal reaction; perhaps in a comparable fashion to our commenter on Lemonade Coyote’s death, or perhaps in a more overt way. Such expressions of grief are sometimes pathologized: people assume that the griever imagines a personal connection with the celebrity. Such behaviour is sometimes compared to stalking.

FindAGrave (www.findagrave.com) is a website where people can leave comments, virtual flowers, and nauseating animated gifs by way of remembrance. As an example, the amazing screencap below is taken from James Gandolfini’s page:

findagrave

In this case, it’s easy to assume that these commenters are delusional (along with many, many, many others on FindAGrave). But I don’t think that all those who feel a strong connection to Gandolfini are confused over whether there was a real relationship. It is simply that Gandolfini was well known, so it’s easy to fantasize about his death.

Gandolfini’s death provoked a minor mortality crisis in some people, just like the death of Lemonade Coyote did for some others. Public memorials like FindAGrave (or the comments sections on Flayrah) provide an avenue to express that feeling. Such comments are mostly about the writer, not the deceased.

It’s rare for us to think about the inevitability of our own death. Our innate ability to avoid thinking about death is probably an evolutionary trait. Life would simply be too stressful if we were to consider our own death when engaging in risky activities, like crossing the road. So on the rare occasions where death comes to mind, it can provoke a strong and unexpected reaction—a mortality crisis.

A friend of mine recently witnessed a pigeon’s death. He heard it crash into a second-story window, and watched as it twitched and died on the pavement below. It took around 15 minutes to die as my friend stood transfixed, unable to pull himself away from the grisly spectacle.

He told me that he felt ashamed by his compulsion to watch the pigeon’s death. He described feeling queasy and stimulated, almost excited. In hindsight, he judged those feelings as ‘wrong’, that he should have been less curious, or more respectful. But there is nothing wrong with his feelings. They are the same ones that provoke an emotional response when we read about the death of a furry, or seek out footage of fatal accidents on the internet, or watch clips of the September 11 attacks.

Oliver Burkeman, a British journalist who writes on mental wellbeing (here), argues that thinking about death is healthy. The prospect of death—that of our own or of a loved one—puts the value of life into relief, and can remind us of those things we find valuable. Burkeman suggests that we should take time to consider the inevitability of death. It’s a kind of small, planned, pre-emptive mortality crisis.

I agree that this is a healthy way of managing the spectre of death, and we can learn to live life in a more enjoyable fashion if we are able to consciously acknowledge mortality.

From a linguistic point of view, I think that the term ‘bucket list’ is aesthetically ugly. It’s a clumsy reappropriation of an anachronistic metaphor, ‘kicking the bucket’. But from a philosophical standpoint, a ‘bucket list’ is a good example of Burkeman’s principle in action. We have a limited time on Earth, and the thought processes involved in compiling a personal wishlist can help us broaden our horizons. As always, we make ourselves happy through personal improvement: physical, mental, spiritual.

Furry offers great opportunities: opportunities for travel, for personal relationships, for new experiences. A furry ‘bucket list’ might include a visit to a large convention, or a trip around the world to meet a close friend. Such goals are rarely easy, but they are often achievable for someone who is motivated. Consideration of death can add purpose to life.

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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4 thoughts on “Mortality

  1. Most furry fans do not know one another well, but the nature of the fandom means this is not always the case. I was a good friend of Findra and their obituary has comments from several others. Findra’s death was in fact the first time I was affected by a significant amount of grief, and it impacted me for months after his RL memorial service, which I attended along with forty others (a mixture of furs and family members).

    Death notices and obituaries tend to attract traffic, and are crucial for a “paper of record“, but I don’t look forward to writing them. They’re both technically demanding – short turnaround time, research necessary – and emotionally draining, even when it’s not a close friend. For some, it may be their first and last mention in the news, so it’s important to get it right. (Some are useful warnings, too.)

    Of course, we’re all going to die some day. Now’s the time to figure out what you want people to write about you, and do it.

    1. Hi GreenReaper, thanks for the comment. I’m sorry for your loss, and I hope the pain of Findra’s death has eased over time. No matter how well mentally equipped we are to handle death, it’s always painful and it always has the capacity to affect us deeply. Especially so when the death is sudden, which unfortunately is more common than not among our furry peers, thanks to our demographics.

      I’ve always thought that the death notices that appear on Flayrah are one of your site’s most important features. They are always written respectfully, and with a focus on factual accuracy. I’m not surprised to read that they tend to attract a lot of traffic: Flayrah is a trusted source of information in a world that often deals in rumour and hearsay.

      As it turns out, I’ve been trying to put together some coherent analysis of Stalking Cat, following his death late last year. It’s been a difficult exercise, balancing my intent to be respectful but also disinterested. When someone is no longer with us, any comment will always be a partial picture, based more on the perspective of the writer rather than the reality of the deceased. I haven’t managed it yet, although many of the ideas I’ve generated have found their way into two of my recent articles (the article above and this one), so it’s been worthwhile from that perspective. And I’ll keep trying.

  2. Hello, JM! Sorry I’ve been away so long. I’ve been writing, writing, writing…

    …and dealing with multiple deaths in my immediate family, due to old age. Due to this, I’d been considering writing a column on death myself. I’d add to your words that death seems to bite particularly hard both the young (who are unused to it) and non-believers in the afterlife (who don’t foresee a future reunion with the departed, ever). I would speculate that the fact that these two groups are both very likely statistically over-represented in the fandom is a major part of why the impact of the death of one of our own is so large. I think a third factor is that, especially for the young, their furry-friends constitute the largest pool of individuals they personally interact with, even if only at second and third hand. The larger a given pool or people, as any life insurance actuary can tell you, the more likely it is that a member of said pool will die within a given time span. Thus, statistically, it’s more likely than it might appear at first glance that a fellow fan’s passing will constitute a fur’s first experience with death, and most especially with premature death.

    I hate death with deep and unyielding passion, more than I hate anything else in the universe, and consider its mere existence a blight on all things as well as a damning indictment of any potential Creator. Given this “nonconstructive” attitude, well… The older I get the angrier I grow about it. I can’t decide if when I pass myself I want to go out fighting and clawing all the way or if I’d rather die in my sleep, blissfully unaware and bowing to the fact that my feelings and opinions on the matter are totally irrelevant.

    But I will say this. Some of the best writing experiences I’ve ever had were fueled by pondering for a time on the meaning and role of death in our universe. So I suppose every cloud must have at least a _tiny_ silver lining.

    Thanks for a nice article!

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