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?