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Opinion: If my family pet died I would hold a religious end-of-life ceremony

Pope John Paul II said that ‘animals possess a soul’ and are ‘as near to God as men are,’ writes Diarmuid Pepper.

Image: Imagine China/Shutterstock

FOR TWO WEEKS in a row, the front page stories I penned for my local paper in Crossmaglen, involved the abuse of dogs.

Firstly an elderly lady was out walking her dog – her family had bought her a pet for companionship – when a group of young people on bikes grabbed the lead out of her hand and dragged the little dog along the road as they sped off.

The poor pet was eventually found whimpering underneath a lorry on the other side of the town. 

But the second incident, a few days later, dwarfed that one – it was absolutely horrific.

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.

“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,” he said.

Sadly the dog’s injuries were so severe that the vet had no choice but to put him down.

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

Had the latter incident happened to my family dog, I would obviously have been distraught but then I would have done something which some people might not understand. I would have held a religious end of life ceremony for my dog.

I am a Catholic (although admittedly I attend mass very infrequently) and as such, I believe that everyone is imbued with God’s spirit and so everyone is worthy of respect and dignity.

If God created the universe, he also created animal life and I believe that God’s spirit is imbued in all his creatures. 

Pope John Paul II said: “animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity with our smaller brethren.”

He added that animals are “as near to God as men are.”

Family pets, especially dogs, add so much to people’s lives. They offer companionship, loyalty and comfort. Very often, they are valued members of the family who have been with us for many years.

As members of our families surely a ceremony of some sorts to acknowledge all they have given to us would be appropriate.

Father Declan O’Loughlin, a Catholic priest and Diocesan Advisor for Post-Primary Religious Education, says that while we should love and respect all of creation there is a spiritual distinction between us and our pets – as animals don’t have souls in the same way as human beings do.

“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,” says Father O’Loughlin.  

“Pets are close to us; they return affection to us and are often loyal and beautiful companions,” he says. 

But “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,” he says. 

Despite the clear assertion that pets are spiritually very different from humans, Father O’Loughlin doesn’t object to pets being given some type of ceremony when they die.

“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,” he says. 

Although that wouldn’t be a religious service akin to a human funeral, in his view. 

Yet there are religious leaders who do perform such ceremonies. The Anglican Reverend James Thompson, who died in 2015, was affectionately known as the ‘animal Padre’ and he regularly blessed animals and held religious end-of-life ceremonies for them.

In 2012 he appeared on Channel 4’s 4thought.tv – a show that reflects on religious and ethical issues, and aspects of spiritual life.

“It is only right and proper that when an animal dies that it should receive a blessing from a clergyman,” said Thompson speaking on 4thought.tv

He recounted the story of a young Czechoslovakian woman who asked him to bury her dog, as part of the ceremony she lit a candle to represent each year in the dog’s life.

As those candles flickered, Thompson sensed the presence of God. “I could have wept – not wept with sorrow, but with blessing because I felt the presence of God so close,” he said. 

He also recounted his visits to animal cemeteries, where he said the atmosphere is deeply spiritual. He could feel  “the little animals’ presence all around the cemetery,” he said. “The atmosphere is truly idyllic. It’s a foretaste of heaven.”

I believe that lots of people would like to hold a ceremony for their dead pets especially those that have been part of their family for many years.

Indeed children often do bury animals and erect crosses on their graves.

So if you feel it is the right thing to do, then you should hold an end of life ceremony for your pet, if you choose to bring religious scripture into it that is also your choice. 

Indeed, in the Old Testament, there is a passage from the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes which seems to support the idea that we are the same as animals in death. 

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.

Diarmuid Pepper is a freelance journalist and formerly a teacher of philosophy and religious studies. 

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