P.D. James, call your service!

Hey GetReligion readers! Is there anyone else out there that really, really likes the P.D. James novel called “The Children of Men”?

No, not the movie. The real story. The book. The one with those stunning “culture of death” overtones all the way through it.

Well, one of the most haunting images in the book is when, a generation after the entire population of the world has lost the ability to conceive children, the Church of England clergy begin performing baptism services for the pets (dolls, too) that have taken the place of children in the lives of mourning couples.

Obviously, they would need formal funeral rites, as well, for these pets that substitute for children.

I thought about that when I read an interesting little feature story in USA Today about, well, the trend toward elaborate funerals and burials for pets. Here is the top of the story. Note the dateline, for starters.

COLORADO SPRINGS – When Chiquita Isom’s German shepherd, Silla, died of a fast-growing heart tumor last year with almost no warning, Isom was inconsolable.

She knew she needed to do something to honor the loving dog she always called “my girl.”

Days later, the Rev. Pat Boone, in black robe and long shawl patterned with dogs and cats, arrived at Isom’s home. Near an altar with pictures of Silla, her leash and toys, Boone conducted a funeral service before more than a dozen people — many of whom had met Silla and Isom at the park they frequented. Boone quoted Scripture, read poems and spoke of the unconditional love pets provide and the importance of saying goodbye.

“It helped me with closure and with the support I needed to get through the loss,” says Isom, a nurse practitioner.

The story moves on, offering one of those “more Americans are choosing to do such and such” paragraphs that define most trend stories of this kind.

But I was still stuck at paragraph No. 3.

The Rev. Pat Boone? Surely not that Pat Boone. But if not that evangelical figure, then what kind of minister are we talking about? Who, pray tell, is making the rounds in a liturgical robe and shawl — if that’s what these really are — performing liturgical rites for pets? What denomination does this minister represent? Might he or she be a mail-order minister?

One more question: I would love to know the Bible readings for this service. How about you?

Meanwhile, the story offers plenty of rich details about other aspects of this trend, such as:

Devoted pet owners are increasingly holding ceremonies that pay tribute to pets and provide the humans with an endpoint that celebrates the good times and helps them reframe their grief. In Atlanta, pet owners pay from “$495 for a casket, viewing, burial and headstone to $2,000 or $3,000″ for various additional services, fancier caskets and the like, says Keith Shugart, the second generation of pet funeral tenders at Shugart’s Deceased Pet Care Funeral Home. …

Most ceremonies tend to be low-key. When Princess the poodle died last year in Jamestown, Ohio, her owner and 20 friends gathered at the pet cemetery, spoke lovingly of the dog and covered her casket with roses. The arrangements were handled by Michael Storer of Pet Dignity.

There’s a standard pet-funeral poem — The Rainbow Bridge, which “promises pet and person will be reunited in death” — and pet cremation services. You get the picture. But the religion element is mentioned and then it vanishes. In this context, the minister’s presence sounds ordinary. But is it?

At the very least, we need to know which denominations provide such rites. For a discussion of some of the issues involved, one can, it is no surprise, turn to the Daily Episcopalian and to other sources.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dave

    It would indeed be interesting to know the religious background of a minister who conducts animal-companion funerals.

    Whst’s paradoxical is that people love their pets but that love cannot easily be expressed as an exemplar of a religion that exhorts love of God and love of fellow humans. I would not be surprised if Rev Boone (can’t be that Pat Booone) is from a more expansive tradition.

  • http://www.mysteriousthings.net Marc Puckett

    Loved the book, didn’t bother to see the movie because so many creditable critics panned it (as a faithful adaptation of the novel, at any rate). I live in Eugene, Oregon, and the number of people who are willing to ascribe rational souls and the possibility of the beatific vision to their pets astounds me. The thought that they are the same people who are willing to countenance e.g. Oregon’s assisted suicide regime has occurred to me but I wouldn’t want to simply assert the correlation: a few quick searches at the Register-Guard didn’t return any articles about it, or about pet idolising, either.

  • Stephen Moore

    Must be this Pat Boone.

  • http://bojopolitics.blogspot.com Brendan

    “It helped me with closure and with the support I needed to get through the loss,” says Isom, a nurse practitioner.

    Note the media focus in this article (or the main point on the gravestones in the picture) is on the pet owner’s grief, not on the pet so much. At a human funeral, how inappropriate to focus on the living! It is a time to remember the late human’s life. But for a pet’s death, because they are only ‘almost human’ as their human masters make them (wrote C S Lewis in The Problem of Pain), the focus ought to be on the master’s grief. So yes, I think the media’s focus on the masters’ spending rather than on the pets’ lives is apt from a Christian POV, and implicitly critiques pet funerals that equate human and animal life.

    Re: Marc, whether or not non-human (rational?) animals go to heaven has nothing to do with physician assisted suicide, except in The Children of Men. As one from the state above yours, we have a “death with dignity” law, too; and for the record, while I disagree with physician assisted suicide, I have no problem with some animals being semi-rational or with all animals going to heaven.

  • http:rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    The rainbow bridge is a Norse pagan thing. I wonder if that is intentional since it is certainly not Christian to hold a funeral for an animal?

  • Bern

    Apparently, the Rev Boone’s denomination is “LLC” :-)

    My understanding is that RC orthodoxy says animals don’t have souls, so they can’t go to heaven–but a lot of folks feel that heaven wouldn’t be heaven without their pets.
    Thanks to St Francis and others, there are ritual blessings of the animals. Rev Boone’s practice seems a bit of a stretch . . .

    BTW, this is not at all new: Hartsdale NY, near my hometown, has one of the oldest and largest pet cemeteries in the world, right on a main street! http://www.petcem.com/

  • http://www.mysteriousthings.net Marc Puckett

    (Brendan, I think the increasing tendency for people to project human customs onto their pets does have to do with the broader subject of the so-called ‘culture of death’ in that it betrays a significant loss of our fellows’ understanding of what can be called ‘human exceptionalism’, which may then contribute to regimes that tolerate other human beings being put down like pets when there is perceived to be too much suffering etc. But I agree with you that the article itself is making an ‘implicit critique’.

    And, to Bern also, St Thomas, representing the major Latin theological tradition, argues that all living things have souls but that only those living beings with rational souls, i.e. mankind, are capable of salvation and Heaven, for what’s that worth; personally am an agnostic on the question of pets in Paradise.)

  • Jimmy Mac

    Yep, I liked the book (not the movie.)

  • Maureen

    There’s nothing that says that pets won’t be part of the new heaven and new earth, after the Resurrection and the Last Judgement when all Creation is finished being redeemed. (Lion, lamb, et al.) Just not likely to find animals floating around in heaven as unembodied souls, that’s all.

  • Kristel Kate

    To give respect to them, they need to have a proper burial. That if you have a quite experience about your pet and to think of a family not just an accessory. My dog Lala died last year and we’ve been 9 years together. It’s painful and lonely that she left but to make respect for our years together. I gave her a proper burial with the help of pet funeral services pittsburgh.