Mormons and Death: Childhood Pets

Mormons and Death: Childhood Pets
First Pet

Four-Year-Old Me and My First Pet

My sister and her family recently moved across the country, just a few days after their pet cat gave birth to four kittens.  When my sister’s family arrived in their new state of residence, they stayed with a friend of a friend while they looked for a new home.  These hospitable strangers owned a dog.

A couple days into their stay as house guests, my sister and her husband heard their three-year-old daughter screaming.  They ran to her aid but they were too late.  The dog had killed all four kittens and my tiny little niece had witnessed the tragedy.

My niece was naturally traumatized. Her reactions varied from anger, manifested by attacking her baby brother; denial, such as requesting to play with the deceased kittens; to spiritual questioning about what happened to the kittens after the dog bit them and made them stop crying.  Her parents used the classic Mormon glove example to explain to her about death.  Her dad offered her a priesthood blessing. “Heavenly Father wants you to know that He is holding your kitties right now,” he told my niece as he blessed her. He also counseled her to share all the love that she wanted to give to the kittens with her baby brother.

My first memory of death was also the death of a pet.  My first pet died when I was twelve.  She was a cat that had resided with my family since I was four.  My entire family grieved.  We held a special family home evening style memorial service in honor of our deceased pet.  We all talked about our favorite memories of the deceased cat.  The death of this furry loved one must have been an unusually teachable moment for me, because I still remember details of that lesson.  My parents shared a quote from former LDS church president Joseph Fielding Smith about how animals have souls and will be resurrected.  They talked about how they believed our cat had fulfilled her mission in life very well—she had made our family happy, which is the primary purpose of a pet.

With a quick search, I found what may have been that very quote at the church website,  “So we see that the Lord intends to save, not only the earth and the heavens, not only man who dwells upon the earth, but all things which he has created. The animals, the fishes of the sea, the fowls of the air, as well as man, are to be recreated, or renewed, through the resurrection, for they too are living souls.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Conference Report, October 1928)

I have heard it said that a pet is a story with an unhappy ending.  Children and grown-ups  grow close to these creatures, but the relatively short lifespan of most pets almost guarantees that their human caretakers will watch them die. Perhaps this sad truth is actually another benefit of pet ownership.  These animal/human bonds help us appreciate the sanctity of life and learn how to process our grief.  They also give us opportunities to comfort each other. Such lessons will be invaluable as we suffer much greater losses in the future.  My little niece is going through her first primer in human mortality—even though her teachers were not human.

However, even as I reflect so philosophically on the benefits of loving and losing pets, I wish my niece’s kittens were still alive.  I am so sorry, sweetie.

Previous Posts in the Mormons and Death Series

Poll: Laid to Rest (5/29)
introduction (5/30)
Mormon funerals (5/31)
unconventional funerals (6/1)
miscarriage/ stillbirth (6/2)
the death of a child (6/8)
suicide (6/15)
the right to die (6/22)
organ donation (6/29)
giving comfort (7/6)
the after-life (7/13)
cemeteries (7/20)

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Mormons and Death: Cemeteries

Mormons and Death: Cemeteries

by Kelly Ann

It’s odd.  Even though (thanks to the ongoing Mormons and Death series) I recently reiterated to my mother that I want to be an organ donor if possible and would like to be cremated when I am laid to rest, I have a profound respect for cemeteries.

Traveling with my grandfather growing up, I grew accustomed to visiting cemeteries to look for the gravestones of relatives (even though he wasn’t Mormon, he still loved genealogy).  Walking around small and large New England cemeteries in particular gave me a good sense of my family’s history as well as tremendous respect for the names and graves of veterans from the Revolutionary War to present.  There is an expression that the history of a city is written on its gravestones and I learned to appreciate it.

So when I heard that the cemetery in Punta Arenas was “worth-seeing”, I made a point to visit it on a rare P-day in which we had time to get out and about (early New Year’s morning of 2001).  Sitting on the Strait of Magellan, the cemetery is world famous for its architecture, family Mausoleums, raised graves, wall memorials, and landscaping.  Having already come to love the people of Patagonia, I really enjoyed capturing a glimpse of the diverse history of the largest southern most city of the world.  Walking in with my companion, I had a profound sense of awe and enjoyed the peaceful setting.  However, I quickly became aware of my companion’s growing discomfort at my enthusiasm.  After reluctantly getting her to take a picture of me (as she discouraged me from “disrespecting” the cemetery by taking pictures of the more notable Mauseleums), we left only to encounter a Japanese tour bus unloading with as many cameras as tourists.  As we walked away, she told me that she thought it was weird that people would want to take pictures of cemeteries.  I tried to explain it was like taking a picture of a memorial.

It’s not like I go around taking pictures of cemeteries normally (although I have to caveat that I have taken a few of the local cemetery recently for previous posts here).  However, I definitely don’t consider taking them a sign of disrespect.  As I have stated, I think visiting cemeteries is a good way of remembering loved ones as well as appreciating history.  I think that people should be comfortable in cemeteries.

In fact, more startlingly to some is that my standard commute route when I bike to work involves biking through the local cemetery.  I like to joke (my odd sense of humor at people’s uncomfortable response to the notion) that my grandfather who is buried there has made friends with all the other ghosts so they don’t mind …  While it is practically the least steep way up and down the hill, I also enjoy the peaceful setting and opportunity to reflect.  I make a point to go about 100 feet out of my way every time to pass my grandfather’s grave.  I think of him in that it is the cemetery but also because my love of biking came from biking with him on the weekends growing up.  As the cool breeze blows against my face, remembering is a good way to start the day.

I guess what I am trying to convey is that I like being able to go to a physical place.  I like remembering those who have gone on before.  While I also treasure the memories of actively participating in funerals, I think going to cemeteries from time to time serves as a ritual of sorts for me to remember those that I have known that have died.  I really hope that more people feel equally as comfortable in cemeteries – to remember death as such an important part of life.

I therefore will probably write in my will (not that I am planning on dying anytime soon) to put my ashes in the Mausoleum at the local cemetery – even though it looks a tad like a haunted house.

In terms of discussion, what experiences have you had in cemeteries? Do you feel comfortable in them?  How do you remember those who have passed away?

And if you have missed the Mormons and Death series up to this point (which I hope not), please check out the various posts covering a range of topics by a variety of perma- and guest- bloggers including an introduction (5/30), Mormon funerals (5/31), unconventional funerals (6/1), miscarriage/ stillbirth (6/2), the death of a child (6/8), suicide (6/15), the right to die (6/22), organ donation (6/29), giving comfort (7/6), the after-life (7/13), cemeteries (7/20), and grieving rituals (7/27), as well as a couple themed polls on Sundays at the beginning and the end of the series.

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Mormons & Death: The After-Life (In This Life)

Mormons & Death: The After-Life (In This Life)

I started writing my grandfather letters the year after he died.  I was nine.  Soon these yearly letters, composed in our expansive garden that he had so lovingly and obsessively cultivated, migrated from paper to prayer.  I was, and remain, achingly convinced that he could hear me.  No sudden rainbows, as appeared at the end of Tim Russert’s funeral, no parting of the veil (whatever substance that veil may be).  But I felt a closeness, like the tether between soul and substance was not entirely broken.

The night they disconnected my father from life support, I finally fell into a fitful sleep 2000 miles from his hospital room. The strength of my sobs that evening surprised the sliver of reason that remained objective, observing in awe as primal grief overcame body and soul.  Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, understood: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her [family] refused to be comforted . . . because they were not.”

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Mormons & Death Series: A Guide to Giving Comfort

Mormons & Death Series: A Guide to Giving Comfort

(Angel of Grief (1894) by William Wetmore Story)

Unfortunately, I am well acquainted with grief. At an early age I was told that my grandfather Brinkerhoff was dying of cancer. I was too young to know what that meant. One day shortly after his death we were told to stay outside and play, I had forgotten a toy and mischievously tiptoed back in the house when I heard something strange. I peered into the kitchen and heard my mom weeping uncontrollably, her body heaving over a large pile of dirty dishes. We had been to the funeral and the grave yard and I did not see her cry this heartily. I was both surprised that grief lasted beyond the funeral and scared about what I was supposed to do. I had never seen my mom cry like that before. I weighed my options and decided that I would probably get into trouble for coming inside and I wasn’t sure how to help anyway, so I stealthily tiptoed back outside, but I never forgot that moment.

Years later, after I had bawled (the type of crying where snot comes out of your nose) through enough viewings of “My Girl” so that I felt like I could understand grief, my Aunt Lisa’s died in a tragic car accident. I was devastated. Lisa was my favorite aunt. She was the perfect combination of beautiful, fun, and remembers-what-it-feels-like-to-be-young that pre-teen girls crave. She was a former BYU cheerleader and would still come out and do back flips on the trampoline while all the other moms watched. I wanted to be like her. I remember sitting up all night praying and praying to God to make a miracle happen and to bring her back to life. At the funeral I remember being aware of different levels of grief for the first time, if I felt this sad how bad is it for my uncle or their four young sons? I began to empathize with their grief and my own got exponentially worse. Still, I didn’t really know what to do or say and so I did nothing.

Then came the summer of ’99 that sounds like the opening dialogue to a 1990’s version of a John Hughes teen movie and I guess looking back it was the beginning of my own bildungsromane, but for me it was the summer of sadness. My grandfather Shields was slowly dying of cancer and the family got together frequently to spend as much time as possible with him. I could tell his death took a huge toll on my father. I had never really seen him express much emotion and losing his father changed that. I wanted to help but I didn’t know what to do. We barely had time to let his passing soak in when tragedy struck again.

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Mormons and death: Giving the gift of life

Mormons and death: Giving the gift of life

When I first signed up to write this post, I had stories to tell. Specific stories about how tragedy in one family lead to a new dawn for another. How tearful prayers on one side were answered with great blessings, while the courageous actions on another made them possible. How congregations and communities were changed by an unknown family’s gift of life. So many terrifyingly beautiful stories of love.

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