It’s a lonely road but …

Posted by on July 31, 2012

Today I posted memories of Macallan, a member of our family for 16 years. Yes, he was a feline member of our family, but no less a member because of his species.

I’ve always loved animals. My mother tells me that I would run after dogs because I wanted to hug them. There are numerous photographs of a young me picking up a kitten on the street. But, before I had animals of my own, I had no idea the depth of feeling that a person can have for their companion animal.

And now, I’ve lived with, and gone through the death of, four cats. And it can be a lonely road. There are no established protocols for caring for someone whose pet is ill or dying. I did tell a few people about Macallan. I did post about his death on Facebook. But on Sunday, in the Mennonite church where I play the organ, during the part of the service in which we name our joys and concerns, I did not get up and say that I was grieving. I did not know how people would have received that; I suspected (maybe incorrectly) that most would have thought that inappropriate for a church service. This same church has a service of remembering in November, right around All Saints Day, a service to remember those in our families who have died. Names are read, candles are lit. For the past two years, I remembered also, silently and crying inside: for Camille, for Duncan. This year, Macallan’s name will be added to my private list of rememberings. But I don’t dare ask for their names to be spoken out loud. I don’t dare ask for a candle to be lit. Religion can be so very human-centric. There may be prayers in prayer books for creation, but even those quickly turn to praying for human beings. Once, during Lenten Wednesday prayers, in a moment of silence, we were invited to name our petitions. All that I heard spoken were prayers for human beings. What was on my mind, though, was the plight of the polar bears, whose habitat was melting away. My “bless the polar bears”, which I did dare speak aloud, seemed out of place. Why is it that we don’t pray more for the animals? How can we support those whose companion animals, true members of their families, are ailing and dying?

Progress is being made. When we were buying Duncan’s ashes last year, I did an internet search for some kind of liturgy for burying a pet. Not surprisingly, many of the resources that I found came from Episcopal churches. The Episcopal church that I know and love has long had a tradition of blessing the animals. In all the Episcopal churches that I’ve been a member of, one Sunday a year is devoted to the blessing of the animals. Sometimes the service is held outdoors, so that animals of all sorts, horses, goats, chickens, as well as the usual dogs, cats, and hamsters, could be easily brought and blessed. But other times, the service is indoors, in the sanctuary, and the animals are welcome to attend. At Church of the Holy Spirit, on Vashon Island, the priest dipped a sprig of Douglas Fir into water that had been blessed and sprinkled all the animals that came. So I smile when I remember that Camille was, in a small sense, “baptized”.

In 2009, the Episcopal Church general convention resolved to “embrace the opportunity for pastoral care for people who grieve the loss of a companion animal” and approved the development of liturgies for the loss of companion animals, and in this year’s general convention (2012), authorized liturgies and prayers for animals. In addition to prayers for the loss of a companion animal, there are also prayers for adopting an animal, for a sick animal, for euthanizing an animal (I wish I had known this one when we took Macallan in to the vet), for animals affected by warfare, for farm animals, and for the death of a wild animal.

It is my hope that other church denominations would also expand their pastoral ministries to include parishioners and the animals that they care for.

This journey we are on, in which we give our love unconditionally to our companion animals has abundant joys and blessings. When we see those animals grow old, fall sick, and die, it is often a grief we bear alone. But I have hope that we will all come to understand that we need to care for one another in these instances as well.



King of Peace Episcopal Church- Liturgy for the Burial of a Pet

Episcopal Network for Animal Welfare

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