“But my dog will never die!” she tells me. I take a deep breath. “Wouldn’t it be great if there was no death?” I say gently. I censor myself before I add: I don’t know where we’d put everyone, though. Death is necessary to allow more birth to happen. Instead I offer, “Would you like me to help you plan for the best worst day?”
Let’s face it: Human/animal relationships are never long enough for our liking. And animal loss hurts. About 20 percent of people choose not to get another pet because of a prior pet loss experience. We are often undersupported when it comes to animal grief, and that has a lasting impact.
The final days of a pet’s life can be messy. Moreover, surprises happen as we age, and we wonder what will happen to Fido or Fluffy when we die. One of our readers recently asked Rabbi Rami about this, observing, “My dog will outlive me. I have no one with whom to leave her when I die, and I can’t imagine putting her in the pound. I’m thinking of having her put to sleep and burying her with me. What do you think?”
He answered her in his column in the Nov/Dec issue, asking a related question of his own, “What if your dog were to die before you? Would you have yourself put to sleep and buried with her?” Rami reflected that when we live with an animal, it is our job to give that being “the best life possible whether or not you are part of it.” Our editor, Ben Nussbaum, asked me if I’d be willing to weigh in, too. I quickly agreed.
The idea of taking an animal’s life when a human dies is not new. One of the oldest known “pet” cats lived about 9,500 years ago in Cyprus and was found interred with a human. French archaeologists suggested that the eight-month-old kitten may have been killed intentionally for an interspecies burial. Zooarcheologists in Barcelona reported remarkable findings about 26 young dogs buried over 6,000 years ago in Yamnaya graves. The dogs had been fed primarily vegetarian diets, presumably by close human companions, yet were likely killed sacrificially and then buried near human remains.
Egyptians entombed millions of animals, including cats, donkeys, gazelles, ducks, elephants, cows, baboons, rams, crocodiles, falcons, hyenas, bats, owls, snakes, lizards, scarab beetles, and at least one hippopotamus. While some burials suggest they were honoring the natural lives of sacred animals, other animals were not so lucky. Ducks, geese, pigeons, sheep, goats, and cows became what are called victual mummies, serving as funerary food for humans in the afterlife. Animals were also bred, raised, and killed to be votive mummies, which became offerings at religious shrines. After a presentation to the god, priests buried these votives in massive animal cemeteries. Sometimes the mummies would be taken out for processions, then entombed again.
Hundreds of thousands of cats ended up in these cemeteries. Over the years, they’ve been removed for research, pillaged by tomb raiders, or destroyed by fire and water. Mummified felines from Bubastis and Istabl Antar were scavenged for ship ballast, then used as fertilizer after arrival in Europe. A single shipment to England in the early 19th century contained 180,000 mummified cat bodies!
Perhaps surprisingly, animals continue to be co-victims in human deaths, often through a gunshot or carbon monoxide poisoning. In some cases, people dying by suicide choose to include their pet out of fear that no one will care for the animal once they are gone. Academics refer to this as “extended suicide” or “peticide.” Serious moral issues arise here, of course. But underneath those, I observe a similar concern as our reader’s.
Although U.S. law considers pets “property” and favors the human’s rights compared to those of the animal, putting a healthy animal to death yourself could be considered animal cruelty. So, if you are attempting to do so, you need to ask your veterinarian (or a euthanasia technician) to perform a convenience euthanasia. Most vets are reticent to provide this service, though. If you request the procedure to be done after your death, it would be up to the executor of your estate to fulfill your request. And then they would need to find a willing vet.
Let’s say you were able to find someone to euthanize the animal. You would have a second hurdle—whether or not the animal could be buried with you. Most human cemeteries will not allow joint interspecies burial, so you would need to find what are called “whole family cemeteries” or have yourself buried in a pet cemetery with the dog.
However, in our reader’s original question, I sense not so much a desire to have her dog killed but a worry about care for the dog after she is gone. And this is a valid topic! Best Friends Animal Society reports that about 10 percent of animals in shelters are there because of the death or illness of their caretaker.
We must have a “plan B” for our animal companions. First, we need to account for them in our wills, designating who will become Fido’s successor caregiver. You could also create a pet trust to fund that care, which is legal in all 50 states. If you cannot find a willing family member or friend to take over, you could make prearrangements for a dog or cat to live at a lifetime pet care facility or enroll them in a perpetual care program. These are fairly easy to find now! I’ll help. Check out the list here.
Beyond your death, there are other reasons to plan for the unexpected. What if you start having problems caring for a pet due to your own illness or changes in your mobility? What if your landlord threatens to evict you because of your pet’s aging issues? What if you move to a retirement community or assisted care facility that isn’t pet-friendly? Many people find it hard to pay for pet supplies on a retiree budget or Social Security. Plus, vet care costs increase as our animal companions mature, too. Indeed, aging with pets can bring all sorts of surprises. So, I’ve put a robust list of resources at sacredsendoffs.com/agingpets.
Dear reader, I know it isn’t easy to think about your death—or that of your animal companion. Thank you for courageously doing so. Through your question, I hope we can all find a worthwhile New Year’s resolution: Create a plan to ensure our beloved four-leggeds can thrive in the case of our absence.
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