Blessings Animals — and Burying Them, Too?

Around the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, many parishes – and by no means Roman Catholic ones alone – celebrate the Blessing of Animals.  These celebrations have become exceedingly popular, which is not surprising given that there are now more dogs than children in the U.S., and that people spend well over 60 billion[!] dollars on pet supplies in a year.  In tandem with these statistics, we have also witnessed significant shifts in understanding of the human-animal relationship, leading to an acknowledgment that we live together in a communion of subjects.

What does all this have to do with liturgical life?  “Animal rites” are of course nothing new in human history.  The first known evidence of ritual burials of companion animals dates to ca. 10,000 years before Christ.  And the Christian tradition itself has a rich history of interconnections between animals and worship, from the swallow that makes her nest in the temple (Ps 84:4), and the bees that made it into the Exsultet, to the animals that are blessed around the Feast of St. Francis.  Some denominations, in fact, like the Episcopal Church, are making available “new rites and prayers for care of beloved animals” and some parishes are making such animal rites a particular focus of their ministry (e.g., St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock, AR).

One difficult issue that is emerging is the question of “pet burials.”  I myself prefer to think about this issue as the question of the burial of a beloved animal — with the fierce German Shepherd mutt I rescued many years ago and buried last month, “pet” never seemed appropriate to her wolf-like spirit.  But back to the issue at hand:  In a prominent Jesuit journal in Germany, Stimmen der Zeit, a theological ethicist and Catholic priest, Michael Rosenberger, wrote a very thoughtful essay on this issue just a couple of months ago.  Rosenberger noted, to begin with, that requests for animal burials have risen exponentially, at least in the North Atlantic world.  He asked whether the church might respond to this “sign of the times” with a Christian form of a burial of beloved animals.

Just to be crystal clear here: no one is imagining a requiem for animals; the discussion is about liturgical forms and prayers that might accompany the burial of a companion animal.  Rosenberger considered such symbols as the Easter candle (gesturing to the redemption of the whole cosmos, won in Christ), the cross (as the tree of life), the committal to the earth (shared by deceased humans and animals), and holy water – with which animals are blessed during their lives in any case, around the Feast of St. Francis.  For Rosenberger, the often-voiced argument that the church must attend only to grieving humans left behind and not to burying deceased animals is a short-sighted one.  He argues instead that a ritual of burying a beloved animal offers a form of pastoral care for the humans left behind.

Predictably, some scorn followed the publication of this essay in online comments, with one respondent wondering whether pet burials were a desperate church’s response to dwindling numbers of humans who requested burials from the church.  Others foresaw the imminent collapse of a venerable tradition of 2,000 years of serious theological reflection with the question of animal burials even being raised.

I think we need to take this issue seriously.  I wonder what thoughts, insights, and experiences readers of this blog have?

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8 comments

  1. If we are to take the communion of sujects seriously, then the animals that walk with us in this life deserve respect in their dying, and a ceremony to honor them and comfort the humans grieving their loss is only appropriate. Thomas Berry quotes Chief Seatle of the Suquamish tribe as saying ‘…when the last animals will have perished, “humas would die of loneliness” ‘. How very sad that we should ever be bereft of our beloved companions both domestic and wild. How important are memorials so we are reminded of their companionship.

  2. When our much-loved 13-year-old dog died this past spring we buried her in the yard among some of her favorite bushes for hanging out under on hot summer days. We then read Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures. I figure it was a way of commending her to God without committing ourselves to a particular view on the eternal fate of non-human animals (I’m too much of a Thomist to go all in on the view that non-humans can share in the beatific vision; I simply remain agnostic).

    1. Thanks for this reflection, Fritz. I too buried my dog, without an official “Christian” burial rite, in her favorite spot under an “arbor vitae” (of all possible shrubs!). I did, however, find myself tracing the sign of the cross on her forehead as she slipped away in my arms … if I were prone to questioning my own ritual intuitions, I would wonder what on earth that meant.

  3. I have had the good fortune of sharing my life and my home with a number of animals.

    They have exhibited a gentleness and strength which have assisted many in the course of my ministry.

    I cannot imagine God bringing forth such life, only to have it vanish after their death.

    I have grieved their deaths and have prayed that will all the departed they might find a place at the Eternal Banquet.

    Do not even the dogs deserve the crumbs that fall from the table?

  4. The founding bishop of the Ancient Catholic Church, Harold Nicholson, gained a name for his London church by conducting all manner of services for animals. He even had an Animal Chapel in his cathedral.
    The altar therein is a bit over the top, and makes Trentish altars look like examples of apostolic simplicity, but I include a reference to it from the Apostolic Episcopal Church site.

    https://innerchurch.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/good-shepherd-043.jpg

    It is interesting to note that Nicholson didn’t believe in charging for spiritual services. Rather rare for the ecclesiastical underworld!

  5. I think the question here is “for what end”. For what end is the burial/funeral liturgy and the other prayers for the dead? They are not just for the living left behind, but should be understood in a real way for those who have died. Now, that just can’t work with pets. That said, if perhaps what we are talking about is a service that allows people to mourn, to grieve, to acknowledge the importance that pets play in their lives, then maybe I’m for it. I think we just need to get the reasons right in our heads first.

  6. Grief for the loss of pets certainly is genuine, and it seems fitting to offer prayers and other forms of pastoral care to those who are grieving. I don’t know of a reason that couldn’t include ritual prayer.

    It seems significant to me that our secular laws prohibit the abuse of animals, even (I hope) the homeless strays. These laws aren’t merely to protect property but rather seem to acknowledge that an animal’s life and wellbeing have an intrinsic dignity worth protecting. I think there is a glimmer of wisdom there.

  7. For my own theological view on blessings and burials, well any living thing would seem to me to benefit from a blessing. As to burrials and such, the funerals are for the living, what need do the dead have for such? Sometimes an animal friend is a great loss, so the service helps to ease the transition of life without the beloved pet. Comforting those who morn seems to me to be solidly centered in Christian theology.

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