Should I hold a family pet funeral?
May 24, 2007 11:07 PM   Subscribe

Our 18 year old cat died this afternoon. Would it be beneficial to my 6 1/2 year old daughter to have a full "pet funeral", or should I just quietly bury him in the backyard before she gets home from school today?

Our cat's death was sudden (though at eighteen hardly completely unexpected). My daughter has had no experience with death previously, no pets or close relatives or friends have died since she was born. I plan to bury the cat in the woods in the backyard tomorrow; would it be beneficial to her for us to stage a funeral? Or would it just be traumatic and cause nightmares? We had her pet the cat tonight to say goodbye after he died behind the couch, but at this age it's not clear she fully understands. If we do have a funeral should she see his body in the ground and then covered over?

I understand that without knowing the people involved it's impossible to say for certain, but people's own experiences in this regard as parent or child might be helpful.
posted by aguy to Pets & Animals (42 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Do you want her to grow up to be a person who can accept a pets deal with grace, then no, no funeral, just talk with her about it in a day or two when she starts asking about the cat. 6 1/2 is old enough to figure it out with some compassionate guidance.

If you want her to grow into a person who attends pet funerals, then throw a pet funeral.
posted by Ookseer at 11:21 PM on May 24, 2007 [6 favorites]

My friend had a full-blown funeral for her pet rat when we were nine years old or so, and invited about ten of her friends. I distinctly remember being invited and not being sure whether it was a joke or not. It wasn't. Not having had a non-bug pet at the time, I didn't get what the fuss was about.

This friend was an only child and a little eccentric, though, and was very close to her pets. Their family had a rule that they could only give the pets "human names" and I think she sort of thought of them as animal siblings. It definitely seemed like it was important to her to be able to acknowledge her rat's life and have people talk about him one last time. We all said we would miss him, and put flowers on his little grave.

I think it mostly depends on how close your daughter was to this cat, and if she'll need some closure. This might also be a good way for her to "figure out" death before she has to cope with the loss of a person.
posted by crinklebat at 11:26 PM on May 24, 2007

I wouldn't do a full-on funeral ceremony, but it might be worth allowing her to see the cat being buried. It might make it easier to explain death to her, as it would presumably be more traumatic to explain it when a friend or close relative dies. I grew up far away from my extended family, so didn't really go to many funerals. I remember burying our first pet dog in the back yard, though, and I think that experience was valuable.
posted by robcorr at 11:30 PM on May 24, 2007

This prior post may be of use to you.

I'm sorry that you lost your friend.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:33 PM on May 24, 2007

My parents' dog died at home when I was two and a half -- they hadn't wanted to put him down at the vet's. I recall him quite vividly lying there on the kitchen floor on some sheets of newspaper, and I also remember the questions I asked my mom and dad as I grappled with what had happened. I asked if I could pet him, and they said that would be okay. They were quite attached to the dog, which they'd gotten before they were married and had been a fellow-traveler with them in their journey together, and so they both cried a little. I remember trying to comfort my mom, telling her it'd be okay. Later, I watched my dad dig a large hole out in the woods, carry Jonathan out in a fuzzy red blanket, bury him and mark the spot with a large piece of white quartz.

I was very clear on what was happening, for the most part, even at two and a half. I think your daughter would be fine with it at six.

Those events left a very strong impression on me, evidently: they're my very first memories. Though sort of melancholy, they're by no means bad memories. My dad still lives in the same house. Occasionally, when I go back home to visit, I notice that piece of quartz a little way out in the woods, half-buried in leaf litter. I think: that rock is a testament to a life not taken for granted.
posted by killdevil at 11:39 PM on May 24, 2007 [27 favorites]

When I lost my hamsters, I did a full funeral myself. I buried two of them in the local soccer field, which was under construction at that time. Whenever I pass there, I think about them.

Granted, I was a bit older than your daughter (9 or 10), but I organized it. I wanted it. Maybe she's too young for that yet, but by your child's age, I'd flushed my fish before.

Losing pets are often a child's first experience with losing someone. They help teach children about death. Keeping the whole thing out of sight isn't going to make the kid grow up "with grace" more than not dealing with it openly.

There's nothing not "graceful" or inappropriate about holding a pet funeral. It gives the family a time together to grieve and to answer any questions.

She's pet the cat and said goodbye, so she's not unprepared. I'd say don't keep her in the dark.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:43 PM on May 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Why not ask her what she wants to do? I was all ready to tell you to have the funeral, then I saw that she already saw the cat and knew he died (my parents buried several of my pets before they told me they were dead, it was weird).

I think a full blown funeral is weird and over the top, but letting her see him go in the ground might be a good thing if she wants to. She might want to do something small like plant some seeds over the place - that helped me when I was a kid, cycle of life etc.
posted by crabintheocean at 11:45 PM on May 24, 2007

I sort of think that the use of "full pet funeral" in the post is making some people indulge in fantasies of Anglicans swinging thuribles, when I'm pretty sure that, for most families, a pet funeral is more like "Hello, small child. Why am I digging this hole? Well, when a pet dies, we bury it in the ground. That way, its body can help nourish the plants growing around it. And we can mark the grave, so we have someplace to go remember Rover. Do you have any questions about this? Yes, I agree-- it is sad."

Which, I think, only a really curmudgeonly person who never loved a furry being would take issue with.

I think your child (not that I know her, of course) is probably old enough to begin to grasp the permanence of death, and as others have mentioned, I think pet death can gently help prepare a child for the death of humans later on. I also vote that helping a small person understand what happens to physical remains is less disturbing than them vanishing while she's not around-- but, of course, that's just my hunch.

Good luck-- and I'm sorry about your cat.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 11:54 PM on May 24, 2007 [4 favorites]

I would definitely hold a funeral. It doesn't have to be elaborate, but a chance to say good-bye and have some closure is important. Pet death is a good opportunity to introduce your child to the reality that death is permanent, and to help her understand that when someone we love dies, we have a ceremony to remember them and mark the end of their life.

My daughter is still a baby, but as a minister who does a lot of human funerals and has dealt with grieving children, I would seize the chance to orient your child to these things now. It could serve in the future as a paradigm for helping her understand what is happening when a person she cares for dies. Funerals are really strange and disorienting for many kids, but having gone through it once with the family pet helps.

This article is on the right track.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:55 PM on May 24, 2007

The cat was a member of your family and should be treated as such. I agree with the suggestion above, that you include your child in the discussion of having whether you want to hold a funeral.
posted by DudeAsInCool at 12:14 AM on May 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

ive found its important to be able to see the dead to really understand the situation.

my parents have a lot of cats, and when one dies - its important for the others to see the dead cat, they get very distressed if one gets blue-juiced at the vet and they never get to see it again. but if we bring the pet home afterwards, and leave it out for an evening, they seem to be much happier.

ive found that children need the same kind of closure, even though it can be a bit distressing for them. as previous posters have said - discuss it with them, do it openly. they are canny enough to figure out things, even though they dont fully understand and appreciate them.

my step daughter was at my parents house when one of their cats died, and shes a similar age. we let her pet the cat, and say goodbye to it in her own way, then discussed where we'd bury it and even helped dig the hole. she had no nightmares over the whole experience, but now she does remember that cat when we are in that area of the garden.

sorry for your loss.
posted by dnc at 12:37 AM on May 25, 2007

I agree with letting her choose. When my parakeets died, my parents gave me the option of going out and watching them bury the birds, and I said no. Don't regret the decision.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:05 AM on May 25, 2007

I still remember the funeral for my friend Dan's hamster George. I can't really remember George. I think I was 7 or so. I was just about to write that it was my first experience of death, but then I remembered a vaguely ceremonial budgie - rubbish chute incident at my Nan's flat (she was on the 3rd floor so rubbish got thrown down a chute and into the bins).

The hamster funeral was good. We all stood in a circle round the hole and said "Goodbye George" or "Farewell George", then took turns at thowing earth in, then had a glass of juice which we raised and clinked and said "Cheers!". I remember it very clearly. Not too much fuss, but a marking of the passing.
posted by handee at 1:08 AM on May 25, 2007

When our 7-year-old lost a hamster he adored, we let him pet her in the cardboard box and say good-bye before we buried it together. He cried for a little bit at that point, but now he's got very affectionate memories of her, and can talk about how much he loved her and misses her pretty openly. (Not that he does that a lot, but when the subject comes up, it's clearly something he's managed to deal with emotionally.) I think the brief ritual of saying good-bye and helping commit her to the ground helped a lot for him.

That being said, I'd definitely ask your child. Every kid is different, but if she wants to say good-bye, it can really help.
posted by LairBob at 1:13 AM on May 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

My father told me an anecdote (or urban legend) of a colleague of his whose daughter's pet bird had died, and for whom they staged a full pet funeral, complete with tiny coffin & a simple interment ceremony: the daughter appreciated this so much that she asked, the next day, if they might kill one of their other pets so that they could stage another funeral.
posted by misteraitch at 1:21 AM on May 25, 2007 [3 favorites]

my instinct would be to say that if she's never experienced a human funeral at this point in her life, she probably wouldn't understand the point of a pet funeral.
posted by wayward vagabond at 1:24 AM on May 25, 2007

thehmsbeagle is right: not a "full-blown funeral" but a short, dignified ceremony in a private part of your yard with a shovel and a marker, a teachable moment instantaneously adaptable to the questions and needs of your child.
posted by bruce at 1:32 AM on May 25, 2007

When I was growing we always had a little funeral for pets. We would stand out in the back yard sadly while my old man dug a hole, then all come up with a memory about the pet. In to the hole with one dish towel wrapped pet, add dirt, done.

I don’t remember this being traumatic. Sad, sure, but not traumatic. It’s probably like a lot of situations, if you don’t act freaked out neither will your child.

Personally I wouldn’t ask if they want to do a funeral. You had the death talk, I would just calmly bury the cat without over talking it. Like I said, my experience has been that children seem to follow your lead on how to react to these sort of things, and if you are going to have a funeral, best to just do it and act like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Of course my oldest is 3, so that may be terrible advice for a 6 y/o!
posted by BostonJake at 2:40 AM on May 25, 2007

Yes, I think you should mark the death of the pet with your daughter. Children do experience grief, but do not always know how to express it. Having some sort of ceremony for your pet will allow her to acknowledge her feelings of loss. Plus, kids that age can sometimes have a strange way of looking at loss - did they cause the loss? Does this mean that everyone will die around them? What happenes after someone dies? You can help her express and puzzle out these questions in the process of getting ready for your ceremony.

It doesn't have to be elaborate. When our two cats died at different times, the kids decorated the "coffins" with pictures and expressions like "I'll miss you, fluffie!" before the cats went inside. We had a brief ceremony, at which everyone told their favorite story about the cat. That part was fun. One of our cats loved eating flowers, so we planted a flowering perennial over her grave. My kids still call it "the cat's flower" every year when it comes up.

I think that, for some kids, pets can be as important as people in their lives, and some ceremony to mark the passing respects their attachment and their feelings.
posted by Flakypastry at 2:52 AM on May 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry for your loss. We've been through exactly this scenario a couple of times. We buried the hamsters and gerbils and flushed the fish. The cats, though, we let the vet dispose of (after the kids said their good-byes)

If you do decide to do a backyard funeral, make sure you bury the deceased relatively deep. Not 6-feet deep, of course, but at least a foot or more deep.
Depending on where you live, there are wild scavengers (as well as the occasional stray dog) that will dig up the body. And, the last thing you want is your daughter discovering the exhumed and partially eaten body of her beloved pet.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:11 AM on May 25, 2007

my instinct would be to say that if she's never experienced a human funeral at this point in her life, she probably wouldn't understand the point of a pet funeral.

I disagree. In my case a pet's death was my first experience of death and of what happens thereafter, and undoubtedly aided me when it came to more serious situations.

I'm in support of giving it a "funeral", but a very basic, practical one. It is right to give respect to the burial of any dead creature. I'm not talking about speeches or overly sentimental routines, but an air of respect and solemnity surrounding the immediate burial of any living creature is not a bad thing to learn. It certainly makes you think twice before choosing whether to slow down for that fox in the road or not and makes one more civil in these matters.
posted by wackybrit at 4:27 AM on May 25, 2007

My cat's death was my first experience of death, as well. We didn't hold a funeral, per se, but I watched as my dad dug a hole in the garden and put the cat in. We said a few words about what he meant to us, I probably cried a bit, and then we discussed getting a new cat. I was probably around 5 or 6.

I don't think you should make a point to bury it while your child isn't around. That would have just freaked me out, like we all just disappear when we die. It was nice to know that my hobie cat was in the garden, and not incorporeally floating about, haunting me.

She's old enough to decide if she wants to see the cat buried or not. Ask her, and then do it when she's in the house, so she can change her mind.
posted by muddgirl at 5:08 AM on May 25, 2007

Would it be beneficial to my 6 1/2 year old daughter to have a full "pet funeral", or should I just quietly bury him in the backyard before she gets home from school today?

On two separate occasions when I was around your daughter's age, my parents a pet before I even knew it was dead. I'm sure they had the best intentions, but I felt cheated of the opportunity to say goodbye.

Children manage honesty and reality much easier than their parents give them credit for. I'm not sure what you mean by a "full pet funeral," but I think something simple to mark the occasion is not only appropriate, but important.
posted by Amy NM at 6:00 AM on May 25, 2007

Now I remember why we don't have any pets.

As someone who grew up without any kind of really meaningful pets, I really couldn't disagree more. Not to be too harsh, but that's kind of like saying that there's no point in having a really nice meal with your friends and family, since it's all going to end up in the toilet, anyway. There's a lot, _lot_ more to having a pet than just eventually dealing with its passing.
posted by LairBob at 6:00 AM on May 25, 2007

I have a daughter about your daughter's age, and a 13 year old cat to whom she's very attached. So I think about this sometimes, and my thinking is similar to what crabintheocean said.

If you're looking for a book to read with her, I really like The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. If When we have to go through this, the pet burial in it is the model I'd like to use.

I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by gnomeloaf at 6:13 AM on May 25, 2007

Do you want her to grow up to be a person who can accept a pets deal with grace, then no, no funeral

That makes no sense. Hiding the evidence of death from your child will help her grow up to accept a pet's death with grace? Uh, I don't think so. As others have said, this is a perfect teachable moment; it would be a real shame to basically sneak around and rush to bury a beloved cat without involving your child.

I think pet death can gently help prepare a child for the death of humans later on. I also vote that helping a small person understand what happens to physical remains is less disturbing than them vanishing while she's not around...

Children do experience grief, but do not always know how to express it. Having some sort of ceremony for your pet will allow her to acknowledge her feelings of loss...

I think the brief ritual of saying good-bye and helping commit her to the ground helped a lot for him...

All very well said. Have some sort of moment to mark the death of your family member, and include your child.
posted by mediareport at 6:15 AM on May 25, 2007

When my 4-year-old's fish died, we put it in a nice box and buried it in the backyard with a little ceremony which is actually very similar to the one we use at church.

My daughter liked doing something nice for the fish. She still remembers it. Hopefully, it will give her some kind of foundation for when she attends a funeral for the first time.
posted by 4ster at 6:29 AM on May 25, 2007

Adding my voice to the chorus of people who say don't do a funeral, but do allow the child to be there for a backyard burial. It might also mean a lot to her if you ask her to build some sort of marker to go on the burial spot. That gets her involved/invested in an emotional way.
posted by jbickers at 6:39 AM on May 25, 2007

Just adding to the chorus that having pet funerals was beneficial to me growing up. Also, I don't think asking a child whether she wants to have a funeral (when she doesn't really know what it entails) would be all that useful -- especially if she's grieving too; she shouldn't have to make that decision.

I was about your daughter's age when our dog died, and the approach my parents took was "she was part of our family, and when a family member dies we pay our respects." She was buried in our backyard under her favorite tree, we planted flowers on top and my brother and sister and I each said goodbye. It helped me understand death, and I remember being really glad that she was in her spot under the tree -- that helped me cope.

I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by AV at 6:57 AM on May 25, 2007

My sons were 3 and 6 when we buried our 18 year old cat last summer. They occasionally remind me of where he is buried (in a flower bed), and it seems to have been good all around. On a related note, you can listen to a wonderful 1967 interview by Tony Schwartz, with a little boy who buries his pet turtle, over here. In the recording, he even plays taps for it on harmonica.
posted by chr1sb0y at 7:36 AM on May 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I was six my family had our pet Doberman put to sleep. I loved our dog Mango quite a bit and to the point where my first word wasn't 'mama' or 'dada', but 'dog'. I remember one day the dog was just gone and I was told that it was put to sleep, which I didn't understand one bit. I knew that the dog wasn't coming back, but was confused about where it had gone and why. I sat on our steps trying to cry because I felt like that was what I was supposed to do in that situation, but I couldn't get any tears to flow and that worried me even more.

Give your child a chance to say goodbye with the rest of the family. Disappearing pets are confusing.
posted by Alison at 7:46 AM on May 25, 2007

On the subject of the "full" funeral, I can report that the tempting-at-seven-years-old idea of having the deceased pulled to graveside on a carriage harnessed to a golden lab will most certainly end in tragedy.
posted by troybob at 9:17 AM on May 25, 2007

My son's first pet (a hamster) died when he (my son) was 6 and we did a burial ceremony. I let my son lead the way on how involved he wanted to be, trying to find the right balance: I didn't want to dictate how he should feel about the whole.

My son asked to hold his dead hamster (a surprise to me, he really inspected it closely), he wrapped it in some cloth, I dug a hole and he put the hamster into the ground, then we both planted perennial flowers over the gravesite as a marker.

The next day, my son woke up and said "Hey, it's time to dig George back up so we can play a different game," so clearly he didn't understand the permanence of death in the first go-round but that's OK: no one expected him to and that wasn't the point as the lessons I wanted to impart are that we treat others with compassion and reverence and our responsibility as pet owners extends all the way to the end, which includes disposing of the body in a respectful manner.

Now he's 9 and wants to dig the hamster back up because he wants to look at the skeleton, but that's another story.
posted by jamaro at 9:27 AM on May 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

To chime in from my own experience: When I was 6, our dog got hit by a car while I was at school, and my Mom had her buried before I got home. She also didn't say anything to me about it, until later in the evening when I asked where Puff was.

Then she matter of factly said Puff was dead and Grandad had buried her. She didn't really want to talk about it, wouldn't tell me where she was buried (other than generally inthe back of the house) and I think she believed that the less I knew, the less upset I would be.

That didn't really work out for me. It seemed like I got no closure, and lots of unanswered questions. With my own kids, they saw the body when our cat died, and were there when we buried him. They seemed to move on much more easily that I had.
posted by rintj at 10:56 AM on May 25, 2007

When I was v. young (about six, I think) we had a family cat, an old, nasty piece of work that had already attacked me once. One day, my Mum had my Dad take it to a vet and have it euthanised. When I returned home from school, I was told that the cat had died in its sleep during the night and had been found in the basement.

Cue a six-year-old's waterworks; that prompted tears from Mum, and (I found out later) a bit of sotto voce grumbling from Dad who had been told to do the evil deed by his now weeping wife.

Flash forward, oh, two decades or so; my Mum had died years before, and out of the blue I said to my father: "Missy [the evil feline] didn't die, you had her put down, right?"

Heh, heh. Chuckles all around at yet another successful Dad joke. (This was the man who had convinced us Prairie watertanks were really "chicken-drink machines" and that, prior to meeting my Dad, my one-step-from-the-convent Catholic Mother had dated Jimi Hendrix.)

I don't know if this counts as advice, but not knowing the truth of Missy being sent to her great reward didn't overly harm me. I still hate cats -- but not because of her death, but because of her life.
posted by docgonzo at 12:44 PM on May 25, 2007

I've recently dealt with something similar, and I have to agree with those that would let Girl Child come with you to the woods.

I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by dejah420 at 1:05 PM on May 25, 2007

I would favor explaining to your daughter what will happen (that you will bury the cat's body) and then giving her the option of being present or not.

I think muddgirl has a good idea to plan to do the burial when your daughter is at home so that even if she initially thinks she does not want to be a part of it, she can change her mind.

I am sorry for the loss of your cat. They are good creatures, cats.
posted by Orinda at 2:29 PM on May 25, 2007

How about explaining to her that the cat has died and ask her if she'd like to have a funeral and say some special words about her cat?

Funerals are a pretty well-respected aid in the grieving process so I don't really see the resistance people have toward them. Also, kids having a pet funeral is just sweet. It might even turn into a nice memory for her.

If you want some ideas the old Disney movie Thomasina has the best cat funeral ever, complete with bagpipes. (Though you may not want your daughter to watch it as Thomasina comes back later in the movie and that might give your daughter false hope).
posted by Jess the Mess at 5:30 PM on May 25, 2007

pet funerals are a good idea. three anecdotes:

we used to bury my hamsters under a tree, wrapped in kleenex, with a handful of seeds tossed in for the afterlife. my parents still live in that house, and i like to imagine that the grass in the hamster graveyard is a little greener, what with all the nourishment from their little furry deaths.

when i was a kid, i visited katy, then 6, who excitedy told me the gerbil had died and they'd had a funeral, did i want to see? i said yes, expecting to see a little garden gravesite. instead, katy rooted into an inch of dry topsoil strewn with wilted flowers, and pulled a stiff, dusty gerbil out by the tail. clearly she'd already disinterred him several times that week. she was sad that he was dead, but scientific about his passing, which i felt was a pretty good outcome. we gently persuaded katy to let dead dogs lie, so to speak, and as far as i know the gerbil remained buried after that. katy has just finished medical school.

my own dad, a scientist who is unsentimental about rodent death in the extreme, once wrapped a deceased guinea pig in a bread bag and heaved her into the bin. when i came home and found the empty cage and, with a bit of sleuthing, Squeeky unceremoniously stiffening in plastic, i was livid. i gave Squeeks a proper backyard burial, and made my dad participate in the digging parts. i think it was good for him.

moral of the stories: funeral yes.
posted by twistofrhyme at 2:02 PM on May 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

I find it a little offensive to have the concept of 'person who has pet funeral' used in a perjoritive sense.
posted by electric_bonzai at 10:54 AM on July 2, 2007

oops - added.

Why does 'accepting death with grace' mean 'not having funeral?
posted by electric_bonzai at 10:56 AM on July 2, 2007

oops again.

I mean I knew someone who had a miscarriage at *less than a month* and still had a funeral type ceremony, and I did not say that was 'not accepting with grace'.
posted by electric_bonzai at 10:58 AM on July 2, 2007

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