Pet obituaries

Pet obituaries are a new phenomenon and are not free from contention.  They highlight the shifting status of pets and push against the idea of personhood and objects.

“A pet obituary raises multiple issues about the “appropriate” objects of mourning, of the “right” to mourn publicly, and of the ways that public mourning legitimates social relationships.”
– Jane Desmond

Obituaries were once reserved for rich, powerful, white men and whilst this has changed somewhat, pet obits seem to be, for some people, crossing the line.  Pet obits have been met with derision and mockery and this revealed that for some people, the mourning of pets is undignified.  Perhaps this is because it defies the hierarchy of value which is often at play in human-animal thinking.

“As one commenter noted in regard to the death notice of 10 year old German shepherd, Annie in the Las Cruces Sun-News, “What is this world coming to? I am as much a dog or pet lover as the next person, but I’m appalled to see a dog in the obituaries with people. I’m disgusted that you would think this is OK. Maybe your loved ones are on the same level as animals, but mine are not.””
mysendoff.com

Additionally, those mocking them, often see pet obits as overly emotional – the realm of crazy cat ladies – and thus there is a gendered aspect at play as well.

“Pet obituaries articulate an extended notion of kinship obligations and recognition by publicly recognizing this bond with non human animals… pet obits, which publicly commemorate a life and make that life part of the historical record, provide one of the test cases of this shifting positioning of the ‘pet’ in relation to human companions.  As with humans, pet obits assign value to a life, define its highlights, extol socially validated accomplishments, and serve as models of living.”
– Jane Desmond

By extending family to include pets, we are challenging the very idea of what a family is, something that has been changing for many decades and now includes single parent families and same sex couples.  For those against these newer models of family, adding pets into the mix might be one more aspect to push against.

Other arguments against pet obits include the idea that their inclusion would insult the human dead who appeared alongside them. Another is that obits have a certain form – they are a space to note the death of a person and to highlight their accomplishments.  With pets, we cannot really do the latter.  We cannot say that a pet graduated from a certain university or was really proud of their contribution to the world.  At best, we have pets who have carried out a heroic act or have worked through their life as a service dog etc.  Inherent in this idea is that animals, even pets, have less value than humans do.

“Beyond the challenge of translating the obit form from human to animal life is the issue of social value – of social worth – and this is an even more fundamental dividing line.”
– Jane Desmond

Humans are considered to be of social worth simply by being human, a lottery of birth, and this is generally only extended to animals who have done something heroic, and is only really extended to pets as opposed to wild or food animals.

In addition to formal obituaries in newspapers, there are less official spaces online which serve a similar function.  They are websites where a bereaved owner can post about their lost pet, knowing that in this semi-public semi-private space, their grief will be heard by like minded people.  Having your grief listened to gives it a legitimacy which isn’t always there in the ‘real’ world.  They tend to be places where humans are seen as survivors of loss, not just an owner, and as such are places of sympathy and understanding.  In contrast to this, the formal obits are public and there is a sense of exposure and vulnerability with that – people who view pets very differently can comment and criticise.

Creating a formal or informal obit can be part of the grieving process and in that respect, there isn’t a clear difference between the death of humans and animals.  There is merit in taking time to remember and celebrate your loved one and I think those deriding the idea of pet obituaries do need to consider this.  Those who want to write a pet obit, may want to think about where this is published, especially if they aren’t open to the potential of negative reactions.  I think this is where informal obituary websites shine.  They are a space to be heard by like minded people, to feel understood and to feel like you can grieve.  In this respect, pet obituaries are similar to pet cemeteries in that they mark a line between those people who feel compelled to (semi) publicly mourn and those who don’t.  Pet cemeteries will be the topic of my next animal and death blog post.

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