Tuesday, June 30, 2009

General Convention 2009: Pet Grief

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.


Matthew said...

The United Church of Canada's new-ish liturgical resource book, _Celebrate God's Presence_ includes not a rite but a prayer for this circumstance. (I had the pleasure hearing one of the committee members who shaped the book speak, and explain the rationale--which is quite similar to what you have quoted.) I rather wonder if providing some thoughtful prayers that could be part of an expression of grief for someone who has lost a companion animal might not be as or more helpful than an entire rite.

Anonymous said...

I have a question about another topic kind of. I will ask it here and you can delete it if you want.

My dad has been in a discussion on another blog about whether a doctor should ask a patient if he could pray for the patient. My mom and dad are very much opposed to a doctor asking a patient if he can pray for the patient. Others think it is fine for the doctor to ask that. Are there any rules at hospitals on this subject? Frank

Marshall Scott said...

Frank, the question is relevant to my blog, even if off this specific topic. If you'll give me some time, I think that's worth a blog reflection. Look for it in a little while.

Ecgbert said...

Interesting topic. A liberal vicar in Montana I know online actually voted against the diocese having a special service for departed pets.

That's a valid point about farmers' less sentimental view of animals - near here the puppy-mill problem is partly the Amish's fault - but traditionally the animals' kinship to us was acknowledged. Their care was and is called animal husbandry and as a pro-gun article I recently blogged said, the farmer has an obligation to the wounded or sick animal. The writer also made a point about taking 'ethical' shots at game in hunting. It's not as heartless as Bambi (mmm, venison) or Peta make it out to be.

Right, I'll bring up pro-life. How odd it is that those with no problem killing an inconvenient baby feel differently about pets or eating meat for that matter.

Part of the problem today in liberal churches is that people don't really believe in the afterlife, the three other Last Things besides death and don't forget the intermediate state commonly called purgatory. Requiems and other prayers are for the repose of the person's soul: Lord, have mercy. Too many funeral services today are de facto canonisations (part of the problem of eulogies) and/or only to make the mourners feel better. If one believes so of people it's not hard to see why some want pet funerals in church.

The thing is, the church's rĂ´le with grieving pet owners is exactly to comfort the grieving person and nothing else.

The animals - rather like children below the age of reason but of course not exactly - with no original sin or guilt for actual sin on their sensitive (as opposed to spiritual and rational like God, the angels and us) souls, don't need our Masses and other prayers.

The worst thing that possibly can happen to them after they die is they simply cease to be. (We're not so sure of the children's film claiming All Dogs Go to Heaven but are fairly sure there are no animals in hell.) An intermediate theory is they have no existence in themselves in the hereafter like a person but God can bring back Fido or Fluffy in heaven to make someone happy. And at most, as souls don't take up space unlike bodies in our dimension/state of being, why not animals in heaven?

Some orthodox Christians hold up the new heaven and new earth in the Apocalypse/Revelation as hope to grieving people that they'll see their pets again, which is not a problem.

BTW I've buried squirrels found drowned in the bins (and made sure the bins were covered or moved away from the downspout) and simply offered a general prayer thanking God for his creation. A minister so doing wouldn't be out of line.

But I think most rational people agree: beyond that and counselling and praying with the grieving, no pet funerals in church.

Marshall Scott said...

Oh, Jon, oh Jon: did you really need to go there?

I certainly agree that hunting need not be cruel; but then I'm not into trophies, or taking anything I'm not ready to eat, or that isn't doing significant damage in one way or another. I also don't understand why anyone would need a fully automatic weapon or a thirteen-round clip to go hunting. Done right, it should be one shot, one kill. If you're not approaching that sort of attitude and that sort of skill, spend a lot more time on the range before you go into the woods.

Multiple statements notwithstanding, I've never met anyone directly involved in terminating a pregnancy who felt it was "no problem." All have felt there was a problem for which the termination was the least bad decision.

I don't think so much that people don't believe in an afterlife. rather, I think it's the reverse: most are de facto universalists, or at least convinced that grace is sufficient for them (if not for others). I've been told that I believe in Purgatory and not Hell. My response is that Purgatory is not scriptural; but that God is under no obligation to make Hell eternal or to deny those in Hell the opportunity to repent and accept grace.

I do dislike eulogies myself; but I still appreciate funerals as an "Easter celebration." We participate, most of us, believing or at least praying that God's grace is sufficient for the deceased. So, we grieve with hope, and not without hope.

I do get asked about animals and heaven. I respond that I don't know, but believe that God's grace is sufficient for all God's creatures, and not just the humans. That tends to satisfy most questioners. Does that require dogs in heaven, or a heaven for dogs? I don't know. I just trust God's grace.

And then there was the dyslexic agnostic, who was up all night worrying about the existence of dog....

Ecgbert said...

Yes, many/most are de facto universalists: not the afterlife as the Catholic faith describes it but their own version of it.

Sue said...

paringlThis isn't intended to be a public service held in church, but a private service at someone's home. I would hope that a variety of prayers will be included, that could stand alone for various circumstances. But I'm glad that the committee went with C078 that got amended to "liturgical resources", instead of C076, which was simply prayers, even though my diocese passed that same resolution for prayers, too, a couple of years ago.

Unless the Standing Commission will also include prayers for sick & dying animals, or prayers for guidance for people who have to make a decision whether or not to euthanize, whatever they develop will really be about the church being there for its people who are dealing personally with death, and not so much about the animals who have died.

The most compelling post I've read on the need for something like this is posted here:


(I am also very glad that Resolution D015 passed.)

Marshall Scott said...


First, did we miss a word? I hope not; but if we did, post again and I'll edit out the duplicate.

I read Lisa's post and responded there. Let me say briefly here that I think we need to apply Occam's Razor even to our liturgical discussion. Perhaps it's because I'm a chaplain, but the thought of adapting what we already have (for example, this might be one where the office of Burial of One Who Does Not Profess the Christian Faith in the Book of Occasional Services could be adapted) is more reasonable than having to micromanage our praying, and especially for events for private and home use.

If our Episcopal lay folks don't feel comfortable writing their own prayers, or adapting reasonably prayers from Prayer Book, Book of Occasional Services, or "Enriching Our Worship" trial usages, perhaps it's because we as clergy haven't been teaching them well enough. And while I know Lisa loves her priest, I still think her priest let her down in leaving the composition up to her. If we really take the grief seriously, we need to step up to help with that, too.

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