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Mourning our pets is serious business

Jean-Marie de Bourquenay
translation Louise Thunin
Questioning the link between humans and animals as seen through the prism of pets, Jean-Marie de Bourquenay invites us to rethink our typically Protestant way of accompanying our fellow humans in mourning.

One day, having just seen one of my beloved cats die in my arms, I was severely reproached by a member of the church board of elders for not attending the board meeting, since I was in tears. She even told me that it was scandalous that a minister should prefer his cat to his elders. Well, indeed, that evening I was thinking only of my cat, for which I was grieving. By saying this, I realize that I am upholding the gap that remains, and will perhaps always remain, between those who consider their pet as a member of their immediate family and those who think that they’re only animals. These latter, often, but not always, have never had and never will have a pet. People can become quite passionate over this question. So passionate that those who mourn an animal they have loved often do not dare speak about it, for fear of reactions (like my former board member’s…) or from shame for experiencing real suffering over « such a small thing »… When they weep, they hide.
Let’s go farther : how can we consider and accompany this grieving, while avoiding falling into one of the two traps that an excess of dialogue, sometimes a dialogue of the deaf, can lead to : either deny that this grief exists or overly anthropomorphize the animal ? It so happens that our Protestant traditon seems to have a tool, an argument, that can help us find a balance point.
I want to speak about the way we accompany mourning in our families. In the Catholic Church, a funeral service is first of all an accompaniment of the deceased person, even if that includes the grief of the living. At the end of the service, an absolution is given, that is, a blessing upon the dead person so as, in a way, to send him or her to the other world and into the hands of God. It’s hard to imagine that for a dog or a cat… However, and it’s probably a more fundamental difference than we realize, our Protestantism has made a different choice, that of desacralizing death. In the sixteenth century, pastors did not have the right, at least in certain regions, to preside over burials. The well-known Gospel verse was invoked : Let the dead bury their dead. We thus accentuated the irreducible gap between this world and the next… Henceforth, no more prayers for the dead, no ministerial presence. Traditionally, when someone died, he or she was buried ; then a thanksgiving service was held without the presence of the coffin. It was inappropriate to speak of the deceased person’s life ; it was sufficient to « announce the resurrection. » This categorical (because debatable) position has evolved over time. We might say it has become more humane, even if certain Protestants still refuse to leave any room for emotion… But basically what was the intuition of the Reformers ? Precisely it was to affirm that a human being, beyond his/her death, is welcomed by Grace into another reality, that of our prayers ! The first consequence was that henceforth, it was the grief of the living that took the fore. Even today, when we hold funeral services, our accent is strongly placed on accompanying those who mourn, more than on the deceased, who are welcomed into the other life… Moreover, reactions from people who do not belong to our churches are quite unanimous after these services. We hear from them how humane we are, being more invested in a spirit of compassion than in the practice of rites. And that is true, since we declare that mourning is at the heart of our accompaniment.
Let’s speak again about our pets and apply our Protestant principle concerning grief. If we consider the death of a pet as a subject for grieving, should the Church say nothing ? Does it have to deny the reality of this mourning, experienced by millions of people ? Are there legitimate sources of suffering and others that are illegitimate ? The debate is not about what an animal is (even if this question must be considered), but about taking into account our close and loving relationship with a pet, which, without being human, is a member of our family. The Church, by forgetting our pets, is running, paradoxically, a risk of inhumanity… No doubt we all risk ˝anthropia,˝ that is, considering human beings as the only and ultimate goal of creation, and that a human alone has the right to a sort of exclusive partnership with God. Our biblical notion of the Covenant between God and humanity is thus a form of anthropia. Indeed, but (there is always a but), there are some biblical restraints placed on this notion. In the mythological narrative of Genesis 1, the human being is placed in a responsible relationship to nature and more especially to animals In the equally mythological narrative of the Flood, the human being (Noah in this case) must save the animals.
In Process philosophy and theology, we speak of things and beings as structures of existence, that is, we speak of the entirety of the relationships that this thing or being has to its environment. A stone, for example, lasts long in terms of time but has a simple and dependent structure of existence. The closer we come to human beings, the more complex the structure, moving towards independence and freedom of choice. This complexity stems from an increase in the number of interactions with the environment. A human being is involved in a relationship that is largely free and responsible toward all animals, nature, and, of course, other humans. These relationships (including culture) will define what a human being is, or rather what he or she is becoming. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote : ˝One isn’t born a woman ; one becomes a woman.˝ On this very existential point, this way of thinking harks back to Process theology, which declares that chains of events are what constitute us. If we apply this principle to pets, most of their interactions are with us. To the point where they end up preferring us to their own kind. People with pets also know that the question of language continues to fascinate. An animal and a human being can communicate about far more things than the primary needs of food and so on. Undoubtedly there is not so distinct a separation between the world of animals and that of humans. Pets are animals, of course, and must be respected as such, but they have been humanized in their becoming and in their relationships. We are not speaking here of anthropomorphization but of taking into account a relationship between two beings that can be qualified as mutual love.
Our laws have no doubt evolved more quickly than our Churches. Indeed, from now on, an animal is, according to law, a ˝ living and sensitive being.˝ It is no longer an object with which we can do whatever we want. Our appeal here is of course not to create funeral ceremonies for our animals. Our appeal is for us to be truly Protestant, considerate of human suffering, of all human suffering, in our prayers, our acts and our words. And, beyond that, we hope to redefine our relationship to the world of animals, which is not a homogenous whole but a multitude of lives interacting with our own existence.

À propos Gilles

a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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