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From The Ark Number 195 - Winter 2003
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There was no rite in Jewish tradition for mourning beloved pets, until Rabbi Middleburgh felt he had to create one. Here he tells us why.
By Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh
Twenty three years ago, when my wife and I first met, her closest companion was a Tibetan Spaniel called Tigger. He lived to be seventeen and a half years old and I was privileged to have him share the first five years of our married life. After we had taken the awful decision to have him put to sleep, due to his infirmity and failing heart, we had him cremated and decided to scatter his ashes from a bridge in Chiswick Park, West London, where we had enjoyed so many walks together.
As a rabbi, I felt that the circumstances demanded a specific religious response; as a Progressive rabbi, I decided that if my tradition did not supply me with a rite or liturgy for such an eventuality I would create one! So I wrote a prayer of thanksgiving for a long life and asked God to shelter our beloved old dog under the sheltering wings of the Divine Presence. Before scattering the ashes we both recited the traditional mourner’s prayer, called Kaddish, an ancient text written in Aramaic which makes no mention of death but expresses praise of God, the principle being that we should praise God in times of sorrow as well as joy. And at a time when a loving and gentle presence had been removed from our lives we - and especially my wife - were comforted.
Some years later our first Yorky, Biggles, died tragically after surgery at the Royal Veterinary Hospital; unlike Tigger, this was wholly unexpected, and the circumstances deeply traumatic. The sense of bereavement was colossal, and the grief overwhelming, particularly for me whose dog he had been. There was no chance that in the circumstances the ending of his life would not be marked by prayers, expressing the loss and grief, the disbelief, and also thanksgiving for the years that we had enjoyed, ended by Kaddish.
Following Biggles’ cremation we buried the ashes in a bed by the entrance to our home and planted a beautiful shrub rose at the spot, eventually placing a plaque with Biggles’ name on it at the foot of the plant.
As a result of this experience I wrote an article for Dogs Today [February 1999] about the importance of mourning for lost animal companions, and for the spiritually or religiously minded to have the opportunity of placing their loss within the framework of their religious tradition.
The article sparked an interesting response, and I shall always treasure that from one person, who was Jewish, who ‘thanked me’ for the permission she felt I had given her to say prayers for her own recently deceased Yorky. (She subsequently became a pet bereavement counsellor, much to her credit). At about the same time I was finishing work, with a small group of rabbis, on a new Sabbath, Daily and Festival prayerbook; I suggested to my colleagues that in the prayer miscellany near the end of the book we could place a prayer for an animal bereavement just as we had them for the human equivalent; I was not exactly laughed down, but the suggestion was soundly dismissed.
I was disappointed, but accepted the decision as, among other things, a sign of how far we all still are within the religious world from giving the animals with whom we share our lives an appropriate farewell when they are no longer with us; one that acknowledges the love they gave us, the joy and comfort, and the pain caused to us by their loss.
Within the Christian tradition there are animal services for happy and sad occasions but none yet in the mainstream Jewish community. Whether that changes will depend on the will of one or two non-Orthodox rabbis, but even if it does it is unlikely to be other than an idiosyncrasy practised by a few.
In one of our Jewish daily prayers we recite the phrase - ‘Our superiority over other animals amounts to little, for all is vanity.’ It reminds us that we are animals too, a very particular primate, but an ape nevertheless. We need to be more aware of the fact that we are a part of creation rather than apart from creation, and be more humble and inclusive in our thoughts and prayers for all God's creation. We would not dream of allowing a human life to end without appropriate ceremony and thanksgiving - it is high time that we ended this practice with regard to our animal companions and gave them the love and respect in death that they so richly deserve in life.
* Dr Charles H Middleburgh is Rabbi of the Dublin Jewish Progressive Congregation and lectures at both the Irish School of Ecumenics, Dublin, and Leo Baeck College, London. He is a welcome speaker at interfaith meetings on the Jewish approach to animals and their welfare.
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