The first rule of the Internet is never trust the Internet. This is particularly true of Twitter. Case in point: this past Thursday San Antonio Express-News reporter John W. Gonzalez tweeted out the following gem:
Helps pay the bills: We now carry pet obits. RIP Piggy Porter. pic.twitter.com/pHNeelZe2I
— John W Gonzalez (@johnwgonzalez) February 12, 2015
As silly as it sounded, Gonzalez’s tweet kind of made sense, in a knee-jerk way. In the age of the Great Newspaper Decline—with publications pulling out every single trick to keep from losing readers and revenue—of course a newspaper, even one as esteemed as the Express-News, would resort to selling pet obits.
Except they don’t. Technically. Gonzalez was joking. Technically.
I know this because I called up the Obit department at the newspaper. The young man on the other end of the line was—as all obit writers are—polite and kind with a gentle lilt to his soothing voice. He directed me to the Classifieds department. Once I was patched through, the woman on the other end of the line filled me in on the details, specifically whether the pet obits were meant as some sort of new revenue-generating scheme by the paper. Short answer: no. It’s part of the same classifieds section in which one can try giving away free dirt. All ads are based on a two-line minimum with extra charges for additional lines and photos.
“We’ve always [offered the pet obituary]; we just don’t have very many people who actually do it,” she said. And by “not very many,” my new friend in Classifieds is being generous. “I’ve been here ten years and I think this is the first one I’ve ever done.”
Usually, if animals are featured in obituaries, it’s as members of the family. In 2009 the Raleigh News & Observer said that “a quarter of all obituaries they received in a day included pets among listings of surviving relatives.”
This is not to suggest that pet obituaries are completely unheard of. In 2014 Singapore’s largest newspaper, The Straits Times, announced it would begin offering such missives in the classifieds. From Reuters:
The memorials will be part of a “pets’ corner” in the paper’s classifieds section, along with notices by the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and other animal groups about pets available for adoption. The decision to market obituaries to pet owners in tiny Singapore, one of the world’s richest countries in terms of per capita income, comes as wealthy Asians have fewer kids and shower more attention on pets.
. . . “They will each run S$50 ($40.96), with a goods and services tax of 7 percent on top of that. ($1 = 1.2208 Singapore dollars).”
Further research on non-human obits revealed they have quite a history. As an NPR piece on the subject notes, “When wild chimpanzee Flo, whose mothering skills were made famous by Jane Goodall, died in 1972, her obituary appeared in the London Times.”
The Washington Post’s local columnist Bob Levey also noted the pet obit trend in a 2002 piece (special thanks to WaPo’s Ben Terris for the archived story):
Not only are pets beginning to appear as survivors in the obituaries of human beings, but pets are beginning to get their own obits. Most pet obits have been relegated to the classifieds. But some pet obits are appearing among the obits of humans …
According to the column, the Philadelphia Daily News published “an obituary about Winnie, a 9-year-old terrier,” and the Anchorage Daily News is chock-full of pet obits, including memorials to:
* A Norwegian elkhound named Mac, whose owner proclaimed him to be one of the “kindest souls” he had ever known.
* A Pomeranian named Sheba who was known as “Little Hoover,” since she could “vibrate for food.”
* A Lhasa apso named Barney, whose nickname was “Buddha Man.” According to rumors, Barney’s great-great-great-grandfather was a guard dog at a Tibetan temple.
That pets have obituaries to go along with all their other anthropomorphic treats—Halloween costumes, luxury resorts—is cute. But far more interesting is the seriously existential debate such obituaries have caused. The expert on the matter (there’s always an expert!) is anthropologist Jane Desmond, who published a paper titled “Animal Death and the Written Record of History: The Politics of Pet Obituaries.” Alas, it’s not readily available in its entirety, but her work is echoed in those making a case for allowing Fido’s farewell.
From MySendOff.com, the “world’s most comprehensive educational and planning platform for end-of life celebrations”:
Over the centuries, pets have provided a comfort that equates that of the comfort given by a family member. During times of distress, spells of loneliness and moments of joy, pets have been there to provide unconditional love. As Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Edith Wharton once wrote, pets are “a heartbeat at one’s feet.”
So when the death of a pet occurs, for some, this is a devastating ordeal. With the norms of society changing, birthrates decreasing, career-focused individuals focusing less on parenthood and more on lifestyle, it isn’t uncommon for these individuals to prefer a pet over childbearing. It’s what has become known as pet parenthood and with pets being seen as members of a family, their death can be as much of a loss as that of a loved one. To circumvent and perhaps lessen the pain associated with a loss of a pet, many have taken to writing obituaries as a form of therapeutic recovery.
Obituary writing has long been thought of as an essential and important step in the grieving and healing process. It allows an individual an opportunity to address in words the feelings of loss in ways that may not have been expressed before. They act as mini-memoirs and are, generally the last publicly written words about the life of the deceased. By contrast, newspaper obituaries are highly visible matters of public record—ones which are easily accessible.
“Family” though they may be, there’s plenty of criticism of the pet obituary—least of which is that animals can’t read. Primarily some believe that the pet obit doesn’t jibe with our traditional notions of proper mourning. Repurposing Desmond, NPR’s pro-pet obit piece notes that
because they openly announce that a pet was part of a family, and bring legitimacy to mourning the pet as a family member, obituaries for animals push up against the definition of “family” in ways that may be quite upsetting for some people.
… As with humans, pet obituaries assign value to a life, define its highlights, extol socially validated accomplishments, and serve as models of living.
Or as St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Betty Cuniberti put it: “I’m trying to imagine a sorrowful son opening our newspaper to look for his mother’s obituary and finding her picture next to one of a hamster.”
Levey also levies a complaint that might strike a chord with writerly types:
[The] biggest problem with pet obits is mawkishness. Any human who writes the obit of a pet is odds-on to slather on adjectives, gooeyness and downright stupidity.
Even when in the hands of professional writers, the pet obit seems clunky. “Will The Washington Post ever join the ranks of pet-obit papers? Don’t bet the rent,” said Levey. Except eleven years later, the passing of George W. Bush’s dog, Barney, was given some pretty extensive pixels by Levey’s own paper, complete with the full statement from the Bush clan, one that reads exactly like a human obit: “He never discussed politics and was always a faithful friend.”
The free preview of Desmond’s article cuts off just after the final section begins, which is titillatingly subtitled “Social Worth and Social Obligation: Why Pet Obituaries Are Dangerous.” So those of us not subscribed to academic journals dedicated to animal anthropology will have to take a stab at what those dangers could be. Desmond does suggest that by giving pets the same recognition as humans in such a reserved space as the obituary, we begin to scratch and claw at the fundamental idea and definition of human rights, something the Animal Liberation Front certainly wouldn’t balk at, nor an Argentinian court, apparently. Though many of those earnestly submitting pet obits probably aren’t contemplating the ethics of animal testing, a carnivorous diet, or the implications of free will, the debate over such memorials—a heated one in those places that have allowed such send-offs—does raise some interesting questions in that Matthew-McConaughey-in-a-hazy-dorm-room kind of way. Where do we draw the line (if at all) when it comes to animal recognition and rights? If we treat animals the same as humans in the most august of remembrances, where do we draw the line between the stern training of work animals and abuse? The line between amorous interspecial relationships and bestiality? The idea of consent doesn’t even factor into this mind warp since the humans in the obits can’t actually give consent. They’re dead.
Personally, I side with people. Not pet people, mind you, who often seem to dislike and, in fact, disregard the feelings of other humans. Our entire family are fervent supporters of speciesism, actually. Far from home, the only obit I got about our family’s pet was in the form of an email. In a rather short and sterile note, Maw, a vegetarian whose love and empathy for humans is boundless, explained why our dog, Xena, had to be put down. In short, she was being too aggressive toward people. Xena was buried in the back, explained Maw, whose sign-off was rather matter-of-fact.
“So . . . there you have it.”
Or not? What do you think?
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