5 Traditional Mourning Rituals

To Help Grieve the Loss of a Pet

For those of us who love animals, the death of a pet may trigger a period of deep mourning. We live in a society that prefers not to confront the reality of death for human beings, so people who are heartbroken at the loss of an animal may feel they have little permission to express their sadness. As our ancestors knew, however, we must take time to mourn before we can return to happiness. Here are five traditional rituals that can be adapted to support anyone facing the loss of an animal companion.

1. Preparation of the Body — Up until the 1940s, preparation of the body for burial was done at home. The women of a household, often assisted by close friends, washed the body and dressed the deceased in his or her best clothes. The men, assisted by neighbors, built a simple wooden coffin. The body then lay in state in the parlor, so that family members and neighbors could spend time saying goodbye.

Today, fewer people die at home. Many die in hospitals. At death, a funeral home is called to collect the body and prepare it for burial.

Our pets sometimes die at home of natural causes. Often there is a lingering illness and we must make the difficult decision to choose euthanasia rather than letting our companion linger on in pain. In other cases, pets die suddenly, hit by a car or killed by another animal.

A sudden death is often most difficult to deal with; we’re blindsided by the loss and have no time to prepare. In some instances, a pet may simply disappear, leaving us with agonizing questions. Occasionally, because of a move or other change in life circumstances, we must re-home an animal. In these cases, we may experience guilt at not having been able to protect our pet.

Daisy was my canine companion for eighteen years. My two oldest children grew up with her, and when I was a single mom and my kids were away, she slept next to me and nuzzled me when I cried. When the vet said her kidneys were failing and it was time to let her go, I wanted to be there for her, although I was terrified of seeing her die. As it happened, I was grateful to have made that choice. I held her in my arms as she passed very naturally and peacefully.

Over the years, as other animals came to the end of their lives, my second husband, my younger children and I were with them when possible, and we selected blankets in which we wrapped their bodies for cremation or burial.

2. The Funeral — For past generations, the funeral was a religious rite. Today, we often choose to bury or cremate the deceased first, and hold a memorial service later. Whatever choice the family makes, a ceremony to honor and remember the beloved who has passed is a significant step in mourning and eventually being able to move forward in life.

There are companies that offer pet funerals, but for most of us, a simple ceremony can offer great comfort. It is particularly helpful to children to be able to participate in the ceremony. They can write notes to be buried with the pet, or help place a dog or cat toy into the grave. If the animal has been cremated, the ashes can be buried or scattered in a favorite place. If you don’t have family close by, you can hold invite close friends, or simply perform the ritual yourself.

3. The Wake — Traditionally, a wake is held the night before a funeral. People who knew the deceased gather and share stories. Some stories may be funny, and others poignant, but they serve to remember the uniqueness of the person who has passed.

When an animal dies, the wake may take the form of a gathering after the burial or scattering of ashes, or some time later. It may be as simple as setting out coffee and dessert, and asking friends to come and join you in marking the passage of a companion you loved. You may want to put out a favorite photograph of your pet, or a favorite possession.

4. The Grave Marker — I always enjoy walking in old cemeteries, reading the headstones of the deceased. The headstones frequently include a few sentences that tell the story of the life of the person buried there. Today, grave markers may be a simple metal plaque. Many times the name and dates of birth and death are the only information engraved there.

If you have property and have buried your pet, you can order a small marker, or you may want to make your own. If you have scattered ashes, you may prefer to have a memorial in your home. That may consist of a photograph on the wall, or an object placed in a corner you can visit and think about your pet, and the happiness he or she brought to your life.

5. Wearing of Black — During the Victorian era and into the first half of the Twentieth Century, family members wore black as an outward expression of their sorrow. The phrase “widow’s weeds” was used for the black dress worn for two years by a woman whose husband had died. Others close to the deceased often wore a black armband for a period of months. The wearing of black was a signal to other people in the community to respect the grieving process.

When your animal companion dies, it is appropriate for you to ask for support from your community, and to have your grief respected. Be aware that some people, particularly those who have not bonded with a companion animal, will not be available for that support. They may even seek to minimize your grief, and tell you your sadness is out of proportion.

Avoid those people for the time being, and instead reach out to the people who can understand. Social media has been a great comfort to many people who mourn the loss of a pet. Even people you have never met “in real life” often gather around you and let you know they understand the depth of your loss. Many have in the past experienced the same pain you are feeling now.

As society changes, our traditional rituals also change forms. If you have lost someone you loved, even if that loved one was an animal companion, you can draw on those time-honored traditions and adapt them to help you through your period of mourning. The time will come when you will be able to think of your pet with joy, remembering the unconditional love you shared. For now, however, honor your grief, and spend time with others who will understand and support you.