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Mourning Animals: Rituals and Practices Surrounding Animal Death

Mourning Animals: Rituals and Practices Surrounding Animal Death

by Margo DeMello (Editor)


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We live more intimately with nonhuman animals than ever before in history. The change in the way we cohabitate with animals can be seen in the way we treat them when they die. There is an almost infinite variety of ways to help us cope with the loss of our nonhuman friends—from burial, cremation, and taxidermy; to wearing or displaying the remains (ashes, fur, or other parts) of our deceased animals in jewelry, tattoos, or other artwork; to counselors who specialize in helping people mourn pets; to classes for veterinarians; to tips to help the surviving animals who are grieving their animal friends; to pet psychics and memorial websites. But the reality is that these practices, and related beliefs about animal souls or animal afterlife, generally only extend, with very few exceptions, to certain kinds of animals—pets. Most animals, in most cultures, are not mourned, and the question of an animal afterlife is not contemplated at all. Mourning Animals investigates how we mourn animal deaths, which animals are grievable, and what the implications are for all animals.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611862126
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2016
Series: Animal Turn Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Margo DeMello is an adjunct professor in the anthrozoology master’s program at Canisius College and the program director for Human-Animal Studies at the Animals and Society Institute.

Read an Excerpt

Mourning Animals

Rituals and Practices Surrounding Animal Death

By Margo DeMello

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2016 Michigan State University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62895-271-1


More than a Bag of Bones

A History of Animal Burials


Love of animals is a universal impulse, a common ground on which all of us may meet. By loving and understanding animals, perhaps we humans shall come to understand each other.


Animal burials have been found throughout the archaeological record dating back to the Neolithic period. The question is, how do we know if those burials are the result of a human–animal bond or if the animals buried are what zooarchaeologists call articulated or associated animal bone groups?

There are a great many reasons why animals could be found buried that may have nothing to do with a relationship with a person. For example, animals could be buried after a sacrifice (the animal was killed but was left whole); the animal could have died of natural causes (it may have simply fallen into a pit); it may have been killed but not consumed (young animals could have been buried alive as a means of population control soon after birth); the animal could have been killed and consumed (it would show marks of butchery); it could have been killed or buried alive with a human as grave goods or food offerings (it may have been partially dismembered or butchered or could be whole); the animal could be a foundation offering (when buried under the foundation of a home); it could be a companion offering (buried alongside a human); it could be intended to accompany a human on his or her journey to the afterworld; or finally, the animal could truly be buried because of a special relationship that the human had with that animal when alive. Clearly, though, there are more reasons that an animal might have been buried if it was not a companion than if it was. The reality is that most animals found buried throughout human history were not buried as companions and were not buried in graves; they were buried in pits and were buried for a functional purpose for humans or were simply discarded by humans.

There are some good indications of animals being buried as companions, however. If the animals were older, were whole, and were buried either near or with humans, those are good indications that they may have been loved or well regarded by humans. Another good sign is if the animal was buried with his or her own grave goods, such as food to accompany the animal to the afterlife. This chapter, however, will deal with the archaeological and historical evidence of true animal burials and how modern animal funerary practices evolved.


Archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists have provided us with a great deal of evidence suggesting that humans and other animals have long shared a special bond. In particular, focusing on the burial rituals and other funerary practices dedicated to nonhuman animals has demonstrated that this bond has grown stronger throughout history. One of the earliest depictions that speaks to this bond is the pre-Natufian (23,000–11,500 BCE) and Natufian (13,000–9,800 BCE) archaeological sites throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Both of these cultures are considered unique in that, even though they were probably hunter-gatherers, they were semisedentary/sedentary and were among the first known to live in villages. These communities existed in an area that is now dry and barren but was once a lush woodland area where people cultivated numerous types of plants, fruits, nuts, and cereals as well as hunted woodland animals. Within these areas, researchers found burial sites that show evidence that the Natufian kept domesticated animals, which indicates a distinctive human–animal relationship. Although some of these animals may have been used for food, fur, and possibly to guard or hunt with, there is an indication that some animals may have been kept solely as companions.

Uyun al-Hammam, a pre-Natufian burial site, consists of several elaborate human burials, some of which contain human remains and personal ornaments such as shell beading, animal teeth, and jewelry like bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. One of these burial sites included a human buried with a fox; evidence shows that this fox was not treated as an object or an adornment but rather as a companion. It was not uncommon for archeologists to find fox burial sites in this region, although most of the foxes displayed fragmented bones or bones that exhibited butcher marks indicating that these animals were used for food or fur. However, this fox may have been buried alongside the human so they could be reunited in the afterlife. Archaeologists believe that the burial of the fox and human may have a similar symbolic importance as that of a human and dog does today. We may never know the true relationship between this human and fox; we can only speculate that there may have been emotional and social ties connecting the two. What we do know is that we see this type of emotional connection throughout history.

The ancient Egyptians believed animals possessed a soul like humans in addition to their physical beings. Researchers have found that some pharaohs and other elite members of ancient Egyptian society were buried with their prized animals like horses or companion animals such as dogs and cats. Examples of this were in 1400 BCE when Pharaoh Amenhotep II was buried with his hunting dog, and ten years later his successor Pharaoh Thutmose IV was buried with his favorite cat. Clearly pharaohs thought enough of their companion animals to be buried with them, either because they wanted to continue to have them as companions or for utilitarian purposes in their afterlives.

Numerous animals like crocodiles, rams, and dogs were seen as representatives of gods in ancient Egypt, but cats were considered semidivine. There were several gods that were associated with cats, with the most famous being Bast (also spelled Bastet) who was the goddess of protection, fertility, sun, moon, and pleasure. Cats were held in high esteem because they killed vermin that would otherwise destroy crops and supplies. Although cats were often used for utilitarian purposes, only pharaohs could own cats, and since they were looked upon as the pharaoh's property, harming any cat was considered treason and carried stiff penalties, including death.

When cats died, a cat's family entered into a period of mourning that included family members shaving their eyebrows to demonstrate to the public their grief. It was common for the deceased cat to be massaged with the best essential oils during the embalming and mummification process and to be wrapped in fine linen. Cats were often either buried in feline-only tombs or interred in Bubastis, which was the Bast center of worship. Cats were usually buried with milk, rats, or mice so they would have the provisions they needed for the journey into the afterlife.

Large numbers of animal cemeteries started to appear after the fall of the New Kingdom around 1075 BCE in Egypt. Once the New Kingdom was succeeded by the Third Intermediate Period, Egypt had no pharaoh to mediate relationships between humans and the gods. This led to a rise in animal mummies, which ordinary citizens used to petition the gods for favors, such as good health, long lives, prosperity, and easing family strife. It has been estimated that thirty-one cemeteries held at least twenty million animal mummies at one time.


There is no doubt that throughout the years animals have changed history by fulfilling utilitarian needs for herders, farmers, and hunters. They have served in religious ceremonies as well as defined social structures and provided economic status in cultures across the world. And, as can be seen from this brief look at the funerary practices of the ancient world, they have played an intimate part in the familial lives of humans as well.

Japan has been ritually mourning animals for thousands of years, although it has only been recently that those practices have been extended to pets. According to scholars of Japanese culture, these rituals and memorials emerged because the Japanese needed to appease the spirits of those animals — bears, whales, and others — whom they killed while hunting. They were later extended to all animals who were used by the Japanese. In recent decades, with the rise of Western concepts of pet keeping and the afterlife, appeasing angry spirits is no longer the motivation behind modern pet-mourning rituals.

Japan is a primarily Buddhist country in which most people believe that both humans and animals will be reincarnated. Each person tries to live a life of dignity and respect, and when the person dies they hope to be reincarnated as a higher being. This process will repeat until the person reaches nirvana, which is a state of pure happiness. While it is debatable if animals can reach nirvana, what can be agreed upon is that many Japanese believe that it is their responsibility to ensure that their deceased pet, who shares with them the cycle of birth and rebirth, is memorialized properly.

Today, Japanese companion animals are held in the same regard as family members — and in fact experience very similar death rituals as human family members. An example of such a ritual from the early twentieth century follows:

We got a rectangular grave marker. ... On the front, I wrote, "cat grave." On the back, I wrote a haiku. ... To the left and right of the grave, we set out two glass vases filled with bush clover flowers. In front we put a teacup of water. ... Every month, on the same day of the month the cat had died, my wife offered a slice of salmon and a bowl of rice topped with dried bonito flakes in front of the grave.

Once a pet dies, there are number of ways to honor their life. Some pet owners decide to have their pet cremated or they can elect to purchase a pet grave or shelf in a shrine associated with a temple. Economic limitations may force pet owners to choose a shelf over a grave, but there are other reasons as well, such as the desire to give deceased pets others with whom to play in the spirit world.

Usually pet funerals are a scaled-down version of human funerals and include the deceased animal being placed in a simple, cardboard coffin, and a Buddhist or Shinto priest reciting a series of prayers for the pet.

Once the pet is buried, the family will either purchase a headstone, or if they have rented a shelf, they will have a memorial tablet created. Memorial tablets are similar to tombstones in that they are etched with basic information about the pet but can also contain a favorite quote or endearing statement. Mourning rituals continue after the pet has been laid to rest by offering incense at a temple altar; some family members will offer incense for a period of time after the death while others only offer incense on special holidays and the anniversary of the pet's death. Likewise, many family members will visit the pet's grave or shelf during special times of the year, including the anniversary of the pet's death — sometimes for fifty years after the death, just as for humans. They may show respect by replacing old flowers and in some cases offering the pet's favorite foods or toys. It is important for family members to remember and remain respectful of their dearly loved pet, and some even feel that they will be reunited with their companion animals in another life.

In America, too, we find a long history of mourning practices for nonhuman animals. Indeed, the human–animal relationship is neatly blended into American history and continues to grow and change as society continues to evolve. During the precolonial period, Native Americans formed complex relationships with a variety of animals like bison, deer, and other woodland creatures. Many hunting tribes showed great respect for animals, and even though they needed to hunt them for food and other uses, they felt that they must be killed in a proper, ritualized manner. Some Native Americans believed that animal deaths are temporary and that the animal would be reincarnated and return to our world as the same species. If the hunter did not kill the animal properly, the animal could return as a ghost and haunt the hunter and possibly infect him with a disease.

As European settlers arrived, new animals were introduced to the developing American culture. For example, caged birds like mockingbirds and goldfinches arrived along with cats and new "companion" animals. By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, purpose-bred companion animals including "lap animals" were prevalent in all walks of life and were commonly called "pet." Our affinity for companion animals continued to flourish, which is evident by the arrival of animals like dogs, cats, and squirrels showing up on greeting cards, children's books, and calendars during this period.

During the twentieth century, people sought to better understand their livestock, flocked to roadside circuses and zoos in order to view wildlife, and many companion animals, especially dogs, retired for the night inside their family home. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), founded in 1866, and its many spin-offs were working to eliminate animal cruelty and educate people on the proper treatment of animals.

It was also around this time period that America's first pet cemetery, Hartsdale Canine Cemetery, was founded in New York. Hartsdale is not only the oldest pet cemetery in the United States but also the largest pet cemetery in the country with over forty thousand animals buried there. "Officially and ritualistically, burying a family pet is probably a logical extension of the evolving nature of human–animal relationships, especially since that relationship has increased in emotional intensity in the twentieth century."

Throughout the years animals slowly moved from farm help to family members who are adored and loved. Pets are so loved that they are now showing up in a loved one's obituary, noted with other family members, and some even have their own obituaries. For example, will allow you to write a tribute to your pet and attach pictures and music. These online obituaries are a way to celebrate the life of a pet while allowing family and friends from near and far to read the obituary to share in the grieving process. It is also a way of understanding the death of a pet by enacting the rituals and memorials that were once reserved only for humans.

The International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories estimates that there are between two hundred and three hundred cemeteries in the United States to provide aftercare services for beloved pets that have passed away. These services range from picking up the deceased pet from the home or veterinary office to full funeral services including music, prayers, flowers, and repast. Hartsdale offers a small chapel for funerals that is accompanied by a priest, scripture readings, poems (usually relating to the Rainbow Bridge), and prayers.


Excerpted from Mourning Animals by Margo DeMello. Copyright © 2016 Michigan State University. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction xvii

Discarded Property Mary Shannon Johnstone xxvii

Part 1 When Did We Start Caring About Animal Death?

More than a Bag of Bones: A History of" Animal Burials Ivy D. Collier 3

Mourning the Sacrifice: Behavior and Meaning behind Animal Burials James Morris 11

Horses, Mourning: Interspecies Embodiment, Belonging, and Bereavement in the Past and Present Gala Argent 21

The Issue of Animals' Souls within the Anglican Debate in the Eighteenth to Nineteenth Centuries Alma Massaro 31

Hartsdale Pet Cemetery Liza Wallis Margulies 39

Part 2 Companion Animals: Those We Love

All the World and a little Bit More: Pet Cemetery Practices and Contemporary Relations between Humans and Their Companion Animals Michal Piotr Pregowski 47

To All that Fly or Crawl: A Recent History of Mourning for Animals in Korea Elmer Veldkamp 55

Freeze-Drying Fido: The Uncanny Aesthetics of Modern Taxidermy Christina M. Colvin 65

Clutching at Straws: Dogs, Death, and Frozen Semen Chrissie Wanner 73

I Remember Everything: Children, Companion Animals, and a Relational Pedagogy of Remembrance Joshua Russell 81

On Cats and Contradictions: Mourning Animal Death in an English Community Becky Tipper 91

So Sorry for the Loss of Your Little Friend: Pets' Grievability in Condolence Cards for Humans Mourning Animals David Redmalm 101

Claire: Last Days Julia Schlosser 109

Part 3 Memorials and the "Special" Treatment of the Dead

Britain at War: Remembering and Forgetting the Animal Dead of the Second World War Hilda Kean 115

Now on Exhibit: Our Affection for, Remembrance of, and Tributes to Nonhuman Animals in Museums Carolyn Merino Mullin 123

Another Death Emma Kisiel 131

Part 4 Animals We Do Not Mourn

In the Heart of Every Horse: Combating a History of Equine Exploitation and Slaughter through the Commemoration of an "Average" Thoroughbred Racehorse Tamar V. S. McKee 137

Creating Carnivores and Cannibals: Animal Feed and the Regulation of Grief Keridiana Chez 143

Mourning the Mundane: Memorializing Road-Killed Animals in North America Linda Monahan 151

The Unmourned Linda Brant 159

Part 5 Problems with Coping and Human Responsibility

Beyond Coping: Active Mourning in the Animal Sheltering Community Jessica Austin 165

Mourning for Animals: A Companion Animal Veterinarian's Perspective Anne Fawcett 171

You're My Sanctuary: Grief, Vulnerability, and Unexpected Secondary Losses for Animal Advocates Mourning a Companion Animal Nicole R. Pallotta 179

Keeping Ghosts Close: Care and Grief at Sanctuaries pattrice jones Lori Gruen 187

Grieving at a Distance Teya Brooks Pribac 193

Who Is It Acceptable to Grieve? Jo-Anne MeArthur 201

Bibliography 205

About the Contributors 221

Index 227

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