By the Founder of Interfaith Animal Clergy, Nancy Cronk.
Eight year old Willie was hit by a car while playing ball with his family early one Saturday morning. Mom Madeleine Kelsey was beside herself in grief, as would be expected under the circumstances. She worried how she would tell her seven year old daughter Rebecca. She contacted a retired Episcopal Priest named Reverend David James and arranged the funeral for her beloved Willie. During the ceremony at Hartsdale Cemetery an hour outside of New York City, Rev. James handed everyone a prayer card, and asked little Rebecca to help him read the 23rd Psalm. She agreed. After the beautiful and moving service, between tears, Becky asked Rev. James the question Madeleine had been dreading most.
“Will Willie go to Heaven?”
Rev. James knelt down next to the little girl and asked if she and her family loved Willie with all of their hearts, and she answered, “Yes.” He then asked if Willie loved his family with all of his heart, and again she said, hugging her stuffed toy cat, “Yes, he did. I know he did.”
“Well,” he said, “One of my favorite definitions of God is Love. If you love Willie, and Willie loves you, do you think God, who is Love, would want you to be away from each other?” Rebecca wiped her tears, apparently satisfied, and grabbed her mother’s hand as they walked through the memorial park to the car. Madeleine Kelsey flashed a look of gratitude to Rev. James, and smiled. She knew she had called the right person.
Willie was a golden retriever. Rev. David James is a former Episcopal Priest who now serves the larger ecumenical community. He has performed many human weddings and funerals during his 25 year career, and has performed pet funerals at the nation’s oldest pet cemetery for 15 years. Last year, Rev. James performed more than 100 funerals for dogs, cats, and a variety of other animals. Although Hartsdale pet cemetery has a reputation of being only for the pets of the rich and famous, they also have low-cost options for people on budgets. Rev. James is their Animal Chaplain-on-call.
Pet funerals are becoming more common, and families look to Animal Chaplains to give them the comfort and support some cannot find within their own religious community. For single adults, especially the elderly, their pets may be the only family members they have. When their pet dies, they are as devastated as they would be if a human being had died.
The Interfaith Association of Animal Chaplains lists 35 Chaplains from a variety of different denominations, scattered all over the world. Many of these members of the Clergy are retired from congregational work, or work independently in their communities, and perform their services in exchange for a requested donation. Interfaith Animal Clergy is an internet website where many Animal Chaplains advertise, offer pet loss and bereavement support, share pet blessings and scriptural readings about animals, and support others who have chosen their unique calling. There is also a training program for people interested in starting an Animal Ministry within their own congregations, and for members of the Clergy who wish to add Animal Ministry to the services they provide.
Although the Chaplains listed on the site are from a variety of different religious backgrounds, they share some important things in common. They all share a respect for the spiritual nature of the human-animal bond, and a deep love for all of God’s creatures, regardless of species. Although traditional church doctrine in some faiths holds that animals do not have a soul and therefore cannot go to Heaven, the vast majority of the Animal Chaplains she has known believes they do. Don’t believe them? Check out one of the almost one hundred books recommended on the Animal Clergy website.
In addition to performing animal memorial services, Animal Chaplains offer a variety of other services, as well. Some comfort families in veterinary clinics when animals are in surgery, visit private homes when an animal is dying, or they may offer to be present during euthanasia. Many of the support calls received by Animal Chaplains are difficult questions about the spiritual considerations of euthanasia. When the family Veterinarian tells them there is nothing more he or she can do, and recommends the animal be relieved from his pain and suffering, the emotional toll on the human companion is great. Companion Animal Chaplains can support the family in making a decision that honors their special relationship with their pet.
For more information about Animal Chaplains and Animal Ministries in your area, go to www.AnimalChaplains.com.
Permission was granted by the author to reprint this article.