Many pet owners in the United States, in memorializing their animal kindred, create all manner of tributes and “memory spots,” simple or elaborate, religious or secular, traditional or creative or downright eccentric. Americans expend a great deal of energy remembering pets who have enriched their lives with their honesty, their loyalty, their love, even their sense of humor. In the same way we honor our humans that die, so many of us feel just as compelled to pay tribute to our furry and scaly companions.
For the millions of Americans who love and are loved by their pets, an animal friend’s death is a heartbreaking event—for some, as sad as the passing of a human family member. In her new book, The Celebrated Pet: How Americans Memorialize Their Animal Friends (Wild Rose Press; March 3, 2020), author Gay Balliet-Perkins vividly brings to life the special bond between the pets and their owners and the different ways of memorializing pets that can bring owners lasting comfort and closure.
A recent death jogged my sensibilities about people and their relationships to their animals. This happened when I had buried our old barn cat Elaine, accidentally rolled on and suffocated by a sleeping pot-bellied pig.
Elaine had been my friend and companion through all my horse-showing days, always accompanying me around the farm and helping me with my stall-cleaning chores. She had the simplest of motives, content to merely attend, and the huge emptiness her death left in my heart made me realize that the loss of an animal friend could have just as much impact as losing a human family member or best friend. In fact, for me, losing a pot-bellied pig, a horse, or one of my house or barn cats was far more heart-wrenching than hearing about a distant relative’s passing.
Was there something wrong with me for feeling this way? To be truthful, the death of a human acquaintance affected me far less than the deaths of my horses Merry, Fancy, Fax, and Nicholas and my house cats Robert, Milton, Wendy, and Ricky. I wondered if other people questioned their grief when their animal friends died. In fact, I have decided after much deliberation that a life, even if it be a species different from human, is richly deserving of human grief and the ceremonies and tributes that accompany it. And I don’t apologize for that sentiment. The pet impacts a human’s life in ways that other humans cannot. I have found that the human-animal bond is incredibly strong, strong enough to compel us to honor the animalâ’s memory. Why are they thus deserving?
Honesty. That is part of the answer. I believe the human-animal bond is at all times honest, for an animal cannot be otherwise, and in the presence of a guileless creature, most humans behave honestly because they gain nothing by being false. And, with their authentic personalities, the animals let us recall the capacity for these qualities in ourselves. They are like mirrors to us.
If we look inside them we will see, reflected there, the capacity for honesty within ourselves. Our pets challenge us to rise above common humanity. Honesty is but one of the incalculable gifts we receive from our animal friends. Add to that loyalty, trust, unconditional love, and the many other qualities common to pets, and it’s no wonder humans suffer profoundly when their animal friends die. When a pet dies, we don’t just lose the animal, we lose our own essence and the self-acceptance we felt in the company of that animal.
So it is understandable and logical that the bond with our pets is incredibly strong and that we feel compelled to offer our furry or scaly friend a deserving burial. Burial or cremation is a way to give back, to seek balance, to do a favor in return. And not only does the dead pet need burial, as people need burial, for the respectful and sanitary disposing of a body, but the dead animal friend also deserves a memorial. The human’s gift is all bound up in a need—instinctual, perhaps, to memorialize the pet in a personal way, with ceremony, with praise, and above all with gratitude for her companion who loved and played and taught invaluable lessons.
The day I buried my faithful barn cat in one of my T-shirts, I began to wonder about the practice of pet burial and how other people make tributes for their animals, just as I had for Elaine. That questioning led me to write this book. The true stories here affirm the importance of the bond between animals and people and showcase the many gifts pets offer their humans. Every animal’s life story reaps a gift in return—a memorial: simple or extravagant, conventional or eccentric, an instinctive and significant act of honor, tribute, and need.
The Celebrated Pet will introduce you to Duchess of Pork, a pot-bellied pig; Wools, a Rottweiler; Gus, a guinea pig; Cynthia, a cat; Gabe, a horse; Sonny, an elephant; and many others. With pets as irresistible as these, it’s not surprising that their memorials are so special and unique, ranging from simple garden arrangements in the back yard to artistic creations: mummification and freeze-drying.
About the Author: Gay Balliet-Perkins is the author of The Celebrated Pet: How Americans Memorialize Their Animal Friends (Wild Rose Press; March 3, 2020).