A Call for Scholarship
in Animal Death Studies, with a focus on Zoothanatology
From the President’s Desk
Popular conceptions of pets reveal animals traversing the borders of a coddled humanity, wild animality and (in)animate property; these hybrid beings exist in the juxtaposed and changing realms of accepted cultural norms, idiosyncratic personal/familial relationships, and their own private awareness of self and personal experience (i.e., sentience).
Grief, as a hybrid experience, may bring mourners to the very boundaries of life, time and the complex we call memory, while traversing borders between life and death, perceptions of natural and supernatural, and distinctions between natural phenomena and cultural interpretation.
Boundary experiences – such as relationships with ‘pets’ and encounters with grief – can often stir up powerful psychological and sociocultural conflict. Over the past 30 years much media attention and scholarship has seriously examined these experiences and the controversies and conflicts they arouse. Yet in the U.S., an uneasiness regarding death and the disposition of the body persists. While societies are becoming more accepting of familial relationships between humans and other animals generally, the social stigma toward the emotional bonds between individual human adults and their animal companions lingers.
When these two hybrid experiences collide at the (impending) death of a beloved pet, the social unease may be compounded. Depending on the particular relationship and individuals involved, death may not always be accompanied by an intense bereavement. Yet when one does grieve at the passing of one’s pet – and in the absence of adequately developed social supports – it may be a horribly difficult, isolated and potentially traumatizing experience. Moreover, those sensitive to social stigma may feel so overwhelmed and confused that they are unable to make effective decisions at that time; some may even (regrettably) leave final arrangements to their vet and grieve in silence or not at all.
A cemetery burial can provide an extraordinarily comforting solution for those preferring a burial over cremation. Pet cemeteries do not merely mimic human cemeteries, their development presents a range of unique and varied histories, regulations, geographies, sensitivities, (mis)representations and business models. For those individuals at the onset of their bereavement who are able overcome cultural hurdles in order to choose a pet cemetery (or a whole family cemetery), it may be too emotionally demanding to then address further obstacles, such as the lack of green burial options or the lack of permanency (most pet cemeteries are not deeded in perpetuity).
For all these reasons, funerary arrangements that are available to people who grieve over a beloved animal companion reflect broader cultural attitudes and beliefs about relationships with pets, death, grieving, and connections to Nature. Pet cemeteries are rich yet neglected sites for research; their study would lead to a fuller understanding of human relationships with individuals of other species.
I recently began researching state cemetery laws and am looking to network with others interested in research questions around pets, cemeteries and burial. It is the goal of the Green Pet-Burial Society to encourage a network of scholars interested in this field and to facilitate such research in the years to come.
March 12, 2010
photo credit: detail of ‘dog’, © 2008 Nick Palasin (a.k.a. n i x t e r) on flickr.com
updated May 25, 2012