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Saying Goodbye: Pet Memorial Services

Should you consider honoring your pet with a memorial service?

This article was written by Pet Community Center Board of Directors member and Marketing Committee Volunteer, Maryglenn Warnock. You can learn more about the author at the end of the post.

(Image credit: Paws to Remember)

Funeral. The very word strikes fear, dread, or anxiety for many.

And why wouldn’t it? Death is a tough topic. And a somber, sorrowful, event filled with so much emotion? The mere thought can cause great anguish and discomfort.

So what’s behind this tradition?

A quick skim of Wikipedia yielded an interesting tidbit of information: Funeral services are thought to have been in existence for at least over 300,000 years—“as old as human culture itself, predating modern Homo sapiens.”

While customs vary widely by culture and religion, funerals often provide a way to respect, honor and remember the deceased.

But modern funerals serve another important purpose, as they allow a space for the community to come together and support the deceased’s loved ones, family, friends and one another.

All my life, I heard my mother—an incredibly wise woman—say “funerals are for the living.” I never quite understood what that meant until I lost my father several years ago.

My father’s funeral, simple as it was, was so healing for me. It not only gave me a chance to honor him, to talk about his life and legacy, but to be with people who knew and loved him, too—and to have friends who drove hours just to be there. Having that support, and that time to honor him, meant everything. Even today, when I remember his funeral, I’m not reminded of the sadness of the loss, but of the beauty of having that time to celebrate his life with people who mean so much to me.

I had a similar experience when I lost my beloved Old English Sheepdog Garcia years ago. I was completely bereft after Garcia’s death. After he died, I experienced shock, profound sorrow—and then silence.

(Caption: The author, Maryglenn Warnock with her dog, Garcia. / Image credit: Paws to Remember)

And I was left to wonder: why aren’t pets afforded the same treatment as humans when they die?

I felt a strong but inexplicable need to celebrate Garcia, to do something that would honor the life he lived.

Garcia was an extraordinary dog who deserved an extraordinary farewell, so I planned a funeral for him.

Little did I know at the time, but that event would be the first of many pet memorial services I would coordinate and officiate.

I’m of the school of thought that it is important to stop, honor and celebrate the lives of those we’ve lost. And it doesn’t matter if the loss is of a companion of the two-legged, or four-legged, variety.

Love is love.

And loss is loss.

It’s important to note there is no wrong or right way to conduct a pet service—be it simple or elaborate, large or small, or more somber in tone or more celebratory in tone.

In the recent past, an interesting trend in funerals has developed: While many people still opt for the somber, more traditional funeral service, now more than ever, many people are opting for more celebratory, non-traditional ways to honor the deceased. Parties, celebrations, non-traditional locations and events encompassing traditions the deceased would have loved are becoming more common. What once was considered a funeral is now more aptly described as a celebration of life and/or a memorial event.

This trend presents myriad opportunities for creatively (and meaningfully) celebrating the life of a beloved pet.

While I realize that some people tend to grieve privately, I know there are plenty of people like me who really benefit from the outpouring of support that results from holding a memorial event or celebration of life.

I think back on the celebration of Garcia’s life and will never forget how nearly fifty people—fifty people!—who knew and loved Garcia showed up to celebrate him. I’ll never forget that feeling of knowing that Garcia mattered, that his life meant something, not just to me, but to others, as well.

Even though a memorial service for a pet was (and perhaps still is) a bit unorthodox, I believe that if such a ritual brings comfort and healing, no one has a right to judge.

Through my work, as well as through personal experience, I’ve seen first-hand how healing such a service can be. I’ve witnessed what a beautiful thing it is to see so many people come together to support the bereaved. I’ve choked back many tears during eulogies, and passed out a whole lot of Kleenex. And in a recent virtual ceremony I officiated, I saw thousands of people come together to support a person the vast majority had never even met.

My belief is that holding such a service not only honors the pet, but allows the owner a chance to remember, to share in his or her grief, to get support, and to face the reality of the loss. But ultimately, whether or not to hold a service is an extremely personal decision. There is no right or wrong answer.

In my experience of working with pet owners during their time of loss, there is nothing quite as meaningful as having someone open themselves up in their most painful, darkest hours, and invite me in to their lives, and share with me stories of their pets, their fears, their memories, their joy and sadness.

I am reminded, with every pet I eulogize, and every service I officiate, just how painful it is to lose a pet. As pet lovers, this is something, sadly, we must share.

But with each service, I’m also reminded of some of the most beautiful parts of humanity: love, grace, resilience, compassion. I know, without a doubt, that this is the work I’m meant to do.

About the Author: Maryglenn Warnock

(Photo Credit: Lacey Maloch, Strays to Baes)

Maryglenn Warnock is the founder of Paws to Remember and is a certified pet bereavement counselor. She is also a pet funeral officiant/pet chaplain who is ordained through the Universalist church.

A lifelong animal advocate, Maryglenn serves on Pet Community Center's Board of Directors and volunteers for their Marketing Committee. Additionally, she has served on the executive board of the Nashville Humane Association and volunteered in animal rescue for 20 years. Maryglenn graduated from Vanderbilt University with a BA in English.

Maryglenn is a native of Munfordville, Kentucky who lives in Nashville with her husband Tim and their Old English Sheepdog, Major.

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