Losing a pet is often — if not always — a sad and traumatic experience. Over the past 20 years, my wife and I have shared out home with a total of five cats, three of whom have passed away, the most recent in March 2013. It’s never easy to lose a companion animal.
That’s what makes the Los Angeles Times‘ “Column One” story on the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park, which is actually located about 45 minutes north of downtown, in suburban Calabasas, immediately attractive — the paper itself noted on Facebook that this was one of the week’s most popular news items. Those who’ve lost a pet can identify:
Sheets of blue film cover the windows of the viewing room at the Calabasas graveyard, casting an eerie glow over the Poland funeral party. A jug of water and a glass bowl of brown cookies — for man or animal, it’s unclear — sit untouched.
Sitting on a bench beneath a holographic dog portrait, Shelly Poland writes a letter to Jazz.
Jazz was really his wife’s dog, Greg says. He never wanted a pet and when Jazz died, Greg floated the idea of burying him in the backyard, a suggestion quickly withdrawn.
The story alternates between obituary-style remembrances of the departed pet and a few words about the pet cemetery and the people who are its customers and supporters. The park has a fascinating history, going back to 1928. But apart from one throwaway line, “The small staff connects grievers to florists, priests and rabbis,” there’s no mention at all of a religious or faith-based aspect. Much talk of the human bond between pet owners and pets, but spirituality is only hinted at the margins:
Pet owners experience a kind of disenfranchised grief, says Dr. Wallace Sife, chief executive of the Assn. for Pet Loss and Bereavement and author of the 2005 book “The Loss of a Pet.”
The bond between human and animal can be intense and intimate in a way that human relationships cannot, like caring for a child who never grows up, Sife says. But most people hesitate to place the grief of a pet owner on the same level as that of someone who has lost a mother or child.
The mourning process can be isolating. Non-pet owners can be unsympathetic: Some will say, get over it, or just get a new one.
Through the Internet and organizations such as Sife’s, bereaved pet owners have found a community.
“Pet owners are coming out of the closet,” Sife says.
That neither the reporter nor his editors apparently thought to get some input from a clergyperson, theologian, professor — someone linked to faith — begs many questions: Has St. Francis of Assisi, the friend of animals (You know, the guy the new pope took his name from?) been totally forgotten? Are all the clients of the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park raging secularists? Or did the Times just miss an element here?
I’m guessing the latter, particularly when I read about 63-year-old Mindi Miller, “an aesthetician, former model and one of Elvis Presley’s last girlfriends,” the article noted, who after a year was able to lay her beloved Pekingese, Tootsie, to rest:
At the time, Miller was financially unable to pay for a funeral. And she couldn’t bear the thought of saying goodbye. Tootsie’s body remained in cold storage at the Calabasas cemetery for nearly a year.
A few weeks ago, Miller decided she was ready.
She prepared a white casket, white flowers, a white dress with white shoes and a white clip for her hair. She found poems, prayers and passages from her favorite writers that expressed what she could not. She put together a playlist with specific songs to accompany each reading — no Elvis, but a few songs with Celtic and Middle Eastern themes.
On a Tuesday afternoon, Miller and a friend buried Tootsie on a spot high on the hill at the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park. They tied messages to silver balloons and released them into the air.
“Here’s an animal that you spent so much time with, who was your best friend. I just wanted to send her off in the way I felt was most proper and honorable. I wanted to thank her,” Miller says.
Miller does not plan to get another Pekingese.
“People will say, what a crazy woman, what an eccentric, she was single, she had no children, she became dependent,” Miller says. “But there’s a reason people do things, if you’re interested enough to find out why.”
Why wasn’t the Times team interested enough to find the spiritual ghost here?