In his delightful 1991 book, UH-OH, minister Robert Fulghum describes how he came to officiate at a memorial service for Gyda, a half German shepherd, half Dalmatian dog who lived in his houseboat "neighborhood" and who came to be loved by him and all who knew her. After Gyda dies, he describes the funeral service as a celebration of Gyda's life, during which all of her family and friends gather together on the dock and tell stories that are as much about themselves as they are about the dog. "My seminary training didn't cover how to perform a dog funeral," he observes. "It takes a real dog to teach that. And when the pupil is ready, the teacher appears."
A lovely woman once described to me her family's touching ceremony of remembrance following the death of their beloved dog. As she and her children lit their Sabbath candle that April evening, they said a memorial prayer written by their rabbi, then lit a memorial candle for their dog. She said they all felt comforted by the religious ritual, finding support and meaning in the words they had not yet been able to express to one another. I was impressed by this mother's willingness to openly acknowledge and express her family's grief, to include her children in the process, and to turn to her religious tradition for the comfort it provided all of them.
Planning and participating in a pet's funeral or memorial service can bring great satisfaction to those who mourn the loss of a cherished companion animal. Such a service makes the fact of the death more real to the grievers, gives family members the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about the lost pet, and enables everyone to reflect on and acknowledge the important role the animal played in their lives.
A funeral is generally held within a few days of death and may consist of a viewing, a formal service and a brief rite at the grave side. The atmosphere is usually somber and sad, and the emphasis is on death, mourning and loss. A memorial service, on the other hand, may be held at any time after the death, and its function is to remember and to celebrate the loved one's life. Oftentimes the mood is more positive and uplifting.
A service for a much loved pet can be as small and private or as open and elaborate as you wish, and a memorial service can be delayed as long as its planning requires. Keep in mind, however, that having the service closer to the time when your loss is most deeply felt is when it is most likely to help you and your family express and work through your grief.
Here are some points you may wish to consider as you plan your own unique ceremony of remembrance for your pet:
- Take some time to plan what you'd like to do. Involve all family members (including children) and others who may be willing to help you.
- Consider whether you want to hold a funeral, a memorial service or both.
- Given your religious beliefs, traditions and rituals, do you want to include any religious aspects, or would you consider them inappropriate?
- Think of ways the service can be personalized. Ask family members and friends who knew your pet to reminisce with you and recall what was special about your pet.
- Decide who will hold the service, where and when it will be held, who will speak and who will be invited to attend.
- If you're working with a representative of a pet cemetery or crematory, ask if you can view your pet beforehand and hold the service then.
- Find out what other grieving pet owners have done to honor their pet's memory, think of ways you can adapt their ideas, and make them your own. (See, for example, Memorializing a Pet.)
- Know that it is both normal and healthy to use a funeral or memorial service to express your sorrow, proclaim your love and bid a final farewell to such a cherished friend.
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