Memorial service helps owner grieve loss of pet
WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) — Angus O’Malley Garcia’s obituary describes a life filled with the simple joys of being a human: trips to Martha’s Vineyard replete with fish and chips dinners and strolls on the beach, Dairy Queen sundaes, Oreos, designer clothes, a large collection of jaunty bow ties and a flat screen television near one of the 11 comfortable beds in his Shrewsbury home.
But much as he enjoyed human pleasures and sometimes even displayed seemingly human traits, Angus was a dog.
His owner, Suzanne Shaw, said that before her little rat terrier passed, she began pre-planning for a memorial, because Angus was “her child.” The time was drawing near and Angus was in failing health, showing signs of dementia and other health issues, but he remained her faithful companion and, she said, he deserved a respectful send-off.
On the warm afternoon Saturday, at the Mercadante Funeral Home & Chapel on Plantation Street, Ms. Shaw, family, friends and pups, gathered to say farewell to Angus at his memorial service as he crossed the Rainbow Bridge.
The touching and emotional service honored not only Angus’ life, but the lives of other beloved pets who were family members to their owners. Many who attended did not know Angus or Ms. Shaw personally, but said they were amazed by the dedication and love the ritual showed. Angus and Ms. Shaw are both Irish and she invited bagpiper Patrick Hayes to play Irish songs at the service, including “Danny Boy” and “Amazing Grace.”
After the prayer, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” played in the funeral parlor as attendees looked over flowers sent by loved ones in Angus’ memory, along with cards and many photos of the beloved rat terrier. A sign next to his photo and a candle read, “Heaven is where you get to see all the dogs you ever loved.”
Gail M. Fairbanks, founder of Burt’s Brigade in Charlton, which raised money for local shelters and rescues, brought pups Burt, Thomas, Sparkle and Wyatte in a baby carriage, who sat quietly during the service.
“I’m burying my child today,” Ms. Shaw said. “It is wonderful people came to participate in the ritual of burying my child. Mercadante could not have been more kind or supportive, and treated us with the utmost dignity.”
Ms. Shaw, who works with special needs students and holds a Ph.D., said she wanted to honor the dog who’d brought her and many others much joy. She called two funeral homes looking for a place that would allow her to have something in the way of a memorial in their facility but either got no call back or a rejection.
On her third call, the one to Mercadante Funeral Home & Chapel, she spoke with Michael Farrow, who suggested a ceremony outside, at a park or her backyard. But as she spoke, he began to realize she wanted something else and he could help.
“We talked and after a little while he started to work with me,” Ms. Shaw said.
When the time came, Mercadente staff went to Banfield Pet Hospital in Northboro, where the staff had euthanized Angus, bringing with them a casket, and they helped arrange the dog’s remains inside.
“They were so kind,” Ms. Shaw said. “The driver said, ‘Let’s let him ride up front,’ and he put him on the front seat near him.”
Angus was cremated and his remains placed in an urn that includes a place for a special photograph, Ms. Shaw said. She will keep the urn at her home.
The death of Angus was a big loss for Ms. Shaw, and while she is aware some people might disapprove of his memorial service, she doesn’t really mind.
“I didn’t have a Go Fund Me for this,” she said. “I’m paying for it and it’s what I want to do. They have their opinions, thank you, but they need to stay in their own lane. I do know that people might have a reaction to that but this is private ... I’m burying my child, that’s what I’m doing.”
Animal chaplain and credentialed pet-animal grief counselor Kaleel Sakakeeny of Boston said everyone is entitled to grieve and mourn in their own way, and what might seem over the top to some during the loss of a pet, is perfectly fine to others. All losses are felt in different ways, he explained.
“The size will vary, the kind will vary, if it’s the kind of animal companion that came into your life at an especially beautiful and wonderful time, if it came in at the end of your life and that’s all you had left was the animal - some animals have a bigger love, deeper at a tough time in your life,” he said, adding that those factors can impact the grief and mourning one experiences.
He said he has never seen a pet owner lose a pet without experiencing some grief. While the loss of a person can bring complicated emotions because human relationships can be fraught with conflict and disagreements, and maybe betrayal and unhappiness, but with pets the relationship is simpler. The death of a human and the death of a pet shouldn’t be compared, he explained, because they are very different.
Over the last 50 years, as pets came to be welcomed inside homes, opinions about pets and their role in our lives have changed, and science has backed up the idea that pets can be good for us, Rev. Sakakeeny said.
“We used to think it was just a cute, kind of affectionate thing,” Rev. Sakakeeny said. “But lately scientists have discovered that living with an animal creates neurological patterns in our brain in terms of how we walk, how we speak, what our routines are. It affects us physically, emotionally, on every level ... it’s a profound effect.”
Acknowledging grief and mourning are important steps for those experiencing a death and today’s movement away from traditions of “funerals, of open caskets, of washing the body, of sitting in mourning,” means we have less experience with death and no allotted time to express deep sadness, Rev. Sakakeeny said.
“I think we live in a grief-avoiding society,” he said. “You can be 50 years old and never have anybody die that you know. For many people the death of an animal companion is the first time they’ve experienced death.”
Ms. Shaw has experienced death before, both human and pet. Raised a Catholic, she said she wanted a prayerful element as part of the service for Angus, who had been blessed every year at a Catholic “Blessing of the Animals.” She reached out to seeking a priest to perhaps read the prayer of St. Francis and say a few words, but either there was no interest or she was told she’d never find anyone from a Catholic Church to assist.
Again Mercadante stepped up and offered the services of the Rev. Bruce Plumley, a staff member at the funeral home, who on Saturday talked about the value of pets in our lives.
“We come here seeking comfort and strength,” Rev. Plumley said during the service. “A pet is different for each and every one of us and holds a special place in our lives. We often don’t realize until they are ill or gone just how much they had been loved and have given love to us. For many of us our pets are a treasure, and when we lose them, they have left a place that cannot be filled.”
Rev. Plumley said people can learn from the experience never to underestimate or take for granted the value and importance of the blessing and relationship they have with their beloved pets.
“God graciously has given them to us for our good and his glory,” he said. “God loves all his creations ... As I read the ‘Rainbow Bridge’ may your heart be filled with joy and may you have a heart of gratitude for all God created for all of us.”
Ms. Shaw said she experienced kindness and compassion from her family and appreciated the positive reaction from complete strangers who left condolence messages on Angus’ online obituary. The funeral home fielded calls from dog owners who didn’t know her or Angus but wanted to attend the memorial with their pets, she said.
Virginia J. Smith, a retired accountant from West Boylston, said she saw Angus’ obituary in the paper.
“I looked at that doggy’s’ face - 25 years ago I lost a dog with that same face, Billie, a rat terrier that looked exactly like Angus,” Ms. Smith said. “When I saw that face, I said I had to come.”
Billie died at 13 from congestive heart failure, she said. She said has had several rat terriers since, but still misses Billie. She said Angus’ service helped with Billie’s loss.
Deborah A. Young, founder and president of Juno’s Place in Worcester, an animal and children’s charity, said she saw the newspaper article about the service on Facebook.
“I thought it was absolutely amazing,” she said. “I never heard of it happening before.”
Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com