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Would you have a religious funeral for your pet?

June 10, 2019

 Opinion piece by Diarmúid Pepper

For two weeks in a row, the front page leads I’ve penned for my local paper have revolved around despicable and horrifying abuse of dogs.

In the first instance, an elderly lady had her dog taken from her by a gang of youths.  Her family got her a small dog for companionship and to get her out of the house.  But when she left her house to walk her dog, a gang of youths on bikes grabbed the lead out of her hand, and dragged the dog along the street as they sped off.  The dog was later found whimpering underneath a lorry on the other side of the city.

In the second incident a few days later, a beloved family pet was doused in corrosive acid.  The vet who treated the dog said: “This is the worst case of animal cruelty I have ever come across. I will take this case to my grave.”

Speaking of the appalling state of the dog, he added: “You could smell the burning off the animal and the skin was falling away. The dog’s tongue was ulcerated as it was licking the acid off of its skin.”  The dog had to be put down as a result of its injuries.

How someone could be so cruel and vicious towards a defenceless family pet is beyond comprehension.  

Had the latter incident happened to my family dog, I would have been beyond distraught.  Then, I would have done something which may seem a bit bemusing to some. I would have held a ceremony, perhaps with religious connotations, for my dog.

This may sound like a rather odd thing to do – to hold a religious end-of-life ceremony for an animal.  

I am a Catholic, though admittedly I attend Mass very infrequently.  As a Catholic, I am of the belief that everyone is imbued with God’s spirit. As a result, everyone is worthy of respect and dignity.  Then I wondered; why should we only offer this respect to fellow humans? Surely animals are not that much different to us.  If God created the universe, he also created animal life. Therefore God’s spirit is imbued in animals also.

Pope John Paul II thought so. He said that animals, like men, were given the ‘breath of life’ by God. He also said that animals were “as near to God as men are”. 

Indeed, in the Old Testament, there is a passage from the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes which reads: “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.”

Family pets, in particular dogs, can add so much to people lives.  They offer companionship to the lonely, loyalty to the insecure, comfort to the lowly.  They offer so much to their owners, through good times and bad. Very often, they are valued members of the family who have been there for many years.  For this alone, they are worthy of a ceremony of some sorts to acknowledge all they have given to us throughout their lives.

But I am more than open to taking this one step further – to offering up a religious ceremony to mark the passing of a pet.

I spoke to Declan O’Loughlin on this issue. He is a Catholic priest and Diocesan Advisor for Post-Primary Religious Education. 

He said: “Traditional Catholic teaching is that humans are made in the image and likeness of God. Humans have enormous respect and love for all of creation, especially creatures that are close to us and often share our homes and receive our affection. 

“However, pets are not understood to share in our special ability to share in the exercise of free will and therefore do not love in the way we share in God’s capacity for love. In other words, they do not have souls as we understand each human person receives from God at the moment that God gives us life in all its beauty and fullness.

“When a person dies we honour the person’s mortal remains as it possessed the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit and was once a dwelling place for divine life. Hence a funeral liturgy is special for deceased human remains.  

“Pets are close to us; they return affection to us and are often loyal and beautiful companions. Jesus speaks of preparing a place in his Father’s home for his disciples. He does not hint that other creatures will share in his resurrection and so share in his divine risen life. 

“It is nice to bury pets with affection and dignity. It affords comfort to their owners. For a family to thank God for the loyalty, pleasure and affection shown to them by their departed pet seems fine to me. It is a way to console the owner at the loss of their pet.

“However, I cannot see a religious service similar to what we celebrate for Humans as an everyday occurrence. I believe it is our destiny to share in God’s very life of love for eternity that perhaps makes us unique in the whole of creation.”

That being said, there is a precedent for offering up religious end-of-life ceremonies for animals. 

Reverend James Thompson, who died in 2015, was affectionately known as the “animal padre”.  Thompson founded “Christians Against All Animal Abuse”. He would bless animals and hold religious end-of-life ceremonies for them.  Thompson was an Anglican reverend, and on his website he recalled a trip to Germany in 1990 to bless animals in a Catholic Church.  Of the animals present, he said: “Indeed, as is usual, the animals were again on their best behaviour. It was incredible how well behaved they all were.”  But at the end of the ceremony, which he led as an Anglican reverend in a Catholic Church, a young lady stepped forward and said to him: “You understand, I’m brought up a Catholic and you a Protestant. Our churches have been kept apart from each other down the many years. Today, the animals have brought us together as one and I am so very happy.”

Reverend James Thompson appeared on Channel 4’s “4thought.tv” in 2012. Channel 4 describes the series as: “a personal short film, in which a single speaker reflects on religious and ethical issues, and aspects of spiritual lives. The shorts challenge traditional views, and provide a platform for both scepticism and devout religious beliefs.”

In his spot on 4thought.tv, James Thompson said: “It is only right and proper that when an animal dies, that it should receive a blessing from a clergyman.”  He “really believes that animals matter to God, and not just humans.”

On 4thought.tv, he told the story of a young Czechoslovakian woman who asked him to bury her dog.  During the ceremony, small candles flickered, each candle representing a year in the dog’s life. They all gathered to commemorate the little dog who meant so much to them.  When speaking of the ceremony, Thompson said: “I try not to show my emotions, but I could have wept. Not wept with sorrow, but with blessing, because I felt the presence of God so close.”

Thompson recounted his visits to animal cemeteries, where he says “that the atmosphere is so deeply spiritual.”  He claims that he can feel “the little animal’s presence all around the cemetery.”  Indeed, Thompson said: “The atmosphere is truly idyllic. It’s a foretaste of heaven.”

In our busy lives, which can be so full of pain and sorrow, there is a lot of sense in taking time out to honour our most loyal and supporting of companions. 

“A foretaste of heaven” is something that we can all benefit from. 

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