I continue to look through legislation submitted to General Convention, looking for resolutions on health care or otherwise of interest to chaplains. After all, new resolutions are being submitted every day.
While I haven’t found any new resolutions on health care, I have found some of interest to chaplains. One of those is Resolution C078, submitted by the Diocese of Montana. It is titled, “Liturgy for Loss of Companion Animal,” and reads as follows:
Resolved, the House of _______ concurring, That this 76th General Convention reaffirm that all animals are a part of All Creation, for which we are called to be stewards of God's gifts; and be it further
Resolved, That the Episcopal Church embrace the opportunity for pastoral care for people who grieve the loss of a companion animal; and be it further
Resolved, That this General Convention direct the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to develop a rite to observe the loss of a companion animal for inclusion in the next edition of the Book of Occasional Services and that it report its work to the 77th General Convention.
This resolution speaks distinctly to an important change that has taken place in our society. When most Americans were rural and agricultural, the animals around them tended to be either tools or hazards. There were the animals kept to produce meat or fiber. There were animals kept as tools, whether as beasts of burden or herding animals or controllers of vermin. There were animals that were simply hazards, whether to health or to crops. There were some animals that might be either hazards or food sources, depending on how they interacted with human agriculture.
Note, though, that none of these were pets. People might become quite fond of them – note how upset we all became about Old Yeller – but they were rarely confused about how they were to be treated and used. No matter how well tended or loved the bull calf, everyone knew from the beginning that eventually he would be slaughtered or sold. No matter how well loved the dog, she lived in the kennel at the back and not in the bedroom.
While that understanding of how humans and animals relate isn’t gone completely, it’s no longer the most common experience. Most of us have companion animals – pets – and not livestock. There are also service animals that share the lives of many. However, the relationships between service animals and those they serve reflect more often the intimacy of pets than the utility of livestock. For most of us, the animals in our homes are not tools but members of the family. We attribute a certain level of personhood to them. For many they are intimate companions, listeners who don’t interrupt, and providers of unlimited affection. For some they become like children, but children who never grow up and leave, who never move beyond their need of us.
With that in mind, I think it important to take seriously grief at the death of a companion animal. I know from both personal and professional experience that the sense of loss is real and significant in the lives of those who lose the animal. This is often heightened by a greater sense of responsibility; for, all too often, we discern suffering in our companion animals as best we can, and choose to end suffering with euthanasia. We have, as I said, attributed some personhood to these animals. We have taken responsibility for their lives, and frequently for their deaths. The grief that we experience in these relationships and these decisions is meaningful in our lives. We have to go through the same grief processes in these losses that we do in any other.
It is also true that often those around us are not as able to empathize for the loss of a companion animal as they are for the loss of a human companion or family member. It is also common that those grieving loss of a companion animal expect less empathy, and so make it so by being less ready to reach out for support. In either case, there may be a particular experience of isolation in grieving a pet or service animal.
These are all reasons for Episcopalians, both clergy and lay, to take seriously grief at the loss of a companion animal, and to offer compassion and support, as well as to seek support when we grieve ourselves. That said, we can consider as a separable question whether the Church ought to establish an official rite for this circumstance for inclusion in the Book of Occasional Services. The authors of the resolution offer this explanation for the resolution:
Various groups within the Church have shown an interest in developing inclusive liturgies for events that touch people's lives, for which there currently exists no authorized rite. The bond between humans and their animal companions can be strong, causing a deep sense of loss, grief (or even guilt) over the animal's death, especially when dealing with the loss alone, without the presence of their community of faith, or having the preconception that such an event falls outside the interest of their church. Our animal companions provide a unique connection to creation and expand our sense of God's diverse gifts in creation. In many cases they also join us as partners in ministry, in such capacities as assistance animals, i.e., seeing eye dogs, etc. as well as therapy dogs and cats used in health care facilities and for pastoral care. An authorized rite in the Book of Occasional Services would give clergy and others a resource for offering pastoral care at the death of a companion animal.
I would certainly agree with the assertions in this explanation. That said, I don’t know whether we really need an authorized rite for “a resource for offering pastoral care at the death of a companion animal.” First and foremost, as a chaplain I’m conscious that the most important act in pastoral care is quiet, sensitive listening. I am certainly prepared to offer a rite; but it’s not the first step. Moreover, while we understand clearly in our worship tradition that some services require clergy leadership while others decidedly do not, formation of a single “approved” rite would tend to narrow our response and to focus on what liturgical leaders do, instead of what we can all do. Parents have been formulating rites for years for the death of a pet. As we appreciate that the reality of grief at the loss of a companion animal isn’t only the experience of children, we can appreciate the capacity of adults to formulate appropriate prayers to honor the losses in their own situations. As an aside, I am not aware of discussion at this point of a revision of the Book of Occasional Services. Such a rite might be seen more quickly if proposed for trial use as a part of the literature of Enriching Our Worship.
I was a visitor to General Convention in New Orleans in 1982, and was present in the House of Deputies as the Hymnal 1982 was debated and tweaked. When a deputy moved to amend to add “He’s God the Whole World In His Hands” to the Hymnal, a member of the Commission noted that it had been considered and rejected. What was important was the reason it was rejected. That was because that much beloved hymn for children is at its best when those participating were customizing it, adding verses in the moment appropriate to the folks participating. He noted then that for our hymnody we were not restricted to the Hymnal, or to other music specifically approved by the General Convention. I would suggest we are in a similar case here. Burial of the Dead is not a sacramental rite, and we already read the rubrics for that rite with some significant latitude. We have latitude as well to create prayers for situations not addressed in the Prayer Book. I think we can use that latitude creatively to mourn the death of a companion animal, whether alone or in a congregation.
I would be interested to see how this gets through the committee process. I think the occasion for this resolution is real. I don’t know that this makes a specific, approved rite necessary.