When we were children, and as we raised our children, we often observed burials in our back yards when a dear pet died. A nephew once asked his Presbyterian Elder mother (my sister) if his deceased dog would be waiting for him in Heaven. She replied that, since the Scriptures do not specifically teach one way or the other, we could hope for that.
But now that I am old and full of years, I find that the desire for a suitable “funeral” for pets is not just a question for children and that especially in old age, the loss of a beloved pet is the occasion of sincere grief and pain, inextricably tied to the inevitable loss of our family members, spouses, and lifetime friends. Not to be compared, of course, with losing a beloved person in our lives, the loneliness from losing a pet that spent literally all day every day with us is nevertheless sharp and sad.
I offer three examples of questions recently put to me by people who had just lost their pets. Although I agree with my sister that the Scriptures do not teach about their eternal fate in the Kingdom of Heaven, I believe there are passages which give us insight into the place of animals in God’s providence. I composed what I offer now as a sort of “suggested liturgy” for the burial of their bodies or ashes, acknowledging their importance in our lives and giving closure to the relationship we valued.
First, a woman who had just lost her dog asked me just what she could infer from the Bible about the eternal fate of animals we loved. I suggested some Bible study. The animals live peaceably together in Eden before the fall, and Isaiah foretells a return to that peaceable kingdom where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb. Noah is told to save two of each kind of animal along with his family. There’s a lot about sheep and good or bad shepherds, Nathan’s wicked rich man who ate his neighbor’s pet lamb, a scapegoat that carries the people’s sins into the wilderness, oxen who must be allowed to munch while they tread the grain, or get pulled out of a ditch even on the Sabbath, the sacrificial Passover Lamb and Jesus the Lamb of God, the dogs under the Syro- Phoenician woman’s table who eat the children’s fallen crumbs, and many, many other passages. We might also consider the themes explored by Charlie Clauss on the relationship between dogs and the new creation here on Covenant.
But the obscure story in Numbers 22:22-33 of Balaam’s donkey who recognized the angel in their path when her master could not see him is the most striking (pardon the pun). As far as I can think this is the only speaking animal in the Bible[Gene Schl1] other than the serpent in the Garden of Eden that is usually identified with Satan.
But God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the ass, and his two servants were with him. 23 And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the ass, to turn her into the road. 24 Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. 25 And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she pushed against the wall, and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck her again. 26 Then the angel of the Lord went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. 27 When the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the ass with his staff. 28 Then the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” 29 And Balaam said to the ass, “Because you have made sport of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” 30 And the ass said to Balaam, “Am I not your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Was I ever accustomed to do so to you?” And he said, “No.”
31Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face. 32 And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your ass these three times? Behold, I have come forth to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me; 33 and the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have slain you and let her live.” 34 Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that thou didst stand in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in thy sight, I will go back again.”
So, that female donkey (beware of the New Revised Standard Version because it calls “her” an “it”) could see the angel when the human being could not and saved her master’s life by disobeying him. The miracle of her perfectly reasonable and coherent speech about her faithfulness and his mistreatment of her is a powerful text about what God thinks of those who abuse animals, and perhaps a clue about animals’ relationship to the unseen world of Spirit.
Second, a dear friend who is an avid hunter had to put down his Brittany Spaniel, who had diabetes and cancer. He was grieving and knew his grandchildren would be too when he told them.
Third, another friend, a widow who lives alone far away from me, wrote to ask me how she should scatter her dear Labrador’s ashes near where she had scattered her husband’s on their country property. She had had a burial liturgy by their Episcopal Priest from the prayer book liturgy for the committal of his ashes, but she wondered what she could do for the dog?
Here is what I suggested for them: a reading from Genesis 1:24–31, Genesis 7:1–5, or Psalm 104; followed by a hymn like “All things bright and beautiful” (Hymnal #405), for which they might also write a special verse for the pet like these that we did.
All things bright and beautiful
all creatures great and small
all things wise and wonderful
the Lord God made them all.
A greyhound name of Prissy
She was so smart and frisky
she always made us smile.
That Mojo was a spaniel
Who really knew what to do;
He’d point the bird in the bushes
And bring it back to you too!
And finally end with a prayer like this one:
Heavenly Father, You have given us the animals of the world to be our companions in this life and gave us dominion over them. As your faithful servants we have loved and cared for this dog, name, (or cat, horse, etc.) and he/she rewarded us with faithful love and many hours of fun, work, and comfort. We commit his/her remains now to the earth you created: dust to dust, ashes to ashes. We hold name in our memory with gratitude. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
The Rev Dr. Jean McCurdy Meade is a retired priest in the Diocese of Louisiana.
Listen to our podcast episode, “Animals and the Gospel.”