Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Importance of Pet Funerals for Children

When I was about 11 years old, my neighbor's dog had puppies.  Their four-year-old son accidentally dropped one on its head, and the puppy died.  The boy was not very upset about this.  He told his mother, "Just throw some water on it."  He had seen this in cartoons, where characters got blown up or crushed by a falling safe or whatever and then revived -- so why not in real life?

It was then that his mom realized her son did not understand the finality of death.  He really did think that a bucket of water would bring the puppy back to life.  So she decided to have a funeral for the little dog, inviting us neighbor kids to participate.

The puppy was wrapped in a soft blanket and placed in a shoe box for a coffin.  We all reverently watched as the box was put into a hole in their backyard.  Each of us then put in a handful of dirt.  When the hole was filled in, we marked the grave with rocks and added some flowers from the garden.  It was a beautiful funeral, and a lesson I never forgot.  I was old enough, of course, to understand about death.  It was the beauty of the simple ceremony that stuck with me forever.

Grave of the Two Kittens
July 1, 2013
This week, I passed the tradition along to my four-year-old grandson, Nick.  His brother's cat had 5 kittens on Friday, and Nick  got to see one of them born.  Unfortunately, two of them did not survive.  On Monday, he and his father brought the dead kittens to our place to be buried.  Usually I do this back in the field behind the woods, but because that is a long walk for both my grandson and my arthritic wife, we decided to bury them in a flower garden in the front yard.

The last time we had buried a pet, Nick was still too young to really understand what we were doing, but now he was older and very much wanting to participate.

Our memorial pretty much followed the format of that puppy funeral so many years ago, with the addition of putting tobacco into the grave.  This is a Native American tradition and, since Nick is part Indian, we wanted to honor that heritage as well.  Nick helped fill the grave, then helped me find and place the stones.  We all picked wildflowers to put on the grave, and my wife told the story of the Rainbow Bridge.  After saying our goodbyes, we all went inside to eat.  Later in the afternoon, when we were back outside, Nick decided on his own to walk over to the garden to visit the grave.

I believe these kinds of rituals are very important for children.  All too often, we assume that kids should be shielded from death, that it will be too traumatic for them.  I disagree.  Death is part of life, and it is much better for children to understand that, rather than just say their pet "went away"  and leave them wondering when kitty will come back.  Very often, the death of a pet is their first encounter with death, and a good time to teach about funeral customs.  Children need to grieve just as much as we adults do,  even if the deceased is just a turtle or goldfish.  Funerals, after all, are more for the living than the dead.  I never forgot the puppy funeral, and I hope my grandson will one day carry on that tradition with his own children.

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