Death + the Law Death Ethics Suicide

Choosing Death for Pets. Choosing Death for Humans.

Weighing the End of Life
Louise Aronson, New York Times (February 3, 2013)
How can we measure the quality of life, for our beloved pets or for older, infirm people?

The Old Gray Lady (also known as the New York Times) has been on quite a death-dying-end-of-life-dead body streak of late. In today’s Times, gerontologist Dr. Louise Aronson writes about determining when to put her elderly dog “to sleep” and how that decision-making process gave her pause when thinking about her own human patients.

I am frequently asked about the pet-human relation when it comes to choosing death. So, for example, if a family can choose to humanely end a pet’s life, then why can’t that same family go along with a loved one’s decision to die? The distinction(s) between non-human animals (particularly pets) and human beings are fairly well entrenched in the twenty-first century first world, so I do not see that changing soon.

That said, given the human impulse to make sure that pets do not suffer at the end of life and that a pet’s death is ‘a good death,’ the same philosophical, ethical, moral (dare I say), and practical principles will also be applied to human beings.

The application of these principles and questions will persist. How the law and the modern nation–state decides to view a citizen’s choice to die is a different story altogether.

Grief + Mourning

On the Death of Animals

At-Home Pet Euthanasia Grows in Popularity
Steve Hendrix, Washington Post (September 26, 2011)


National Public Radio: Do Animals Grieve?
Barbara J. King, National Public Radio (October 20, 2011)

This past week I spent some time thinking about animals and death. As the bengal tigers, brown bears and lions were shot to death in Zanesville, Ohio this week because their former owner let them loose and then committed suicide, I thought about the visceral, emotional responses many people had to the animals’ deaths.


Over the past few weeks, a handful of stories on animals, pets, and death have popped up. The Death Reference Desk has an entire section dedicated to Pets, and it’s worth reading through.

I kept coming back to an essay by John Berger, which I first read about five years ago. His essay, Why Look at Animals?, mulls over a key question: Why do we humans look at other animals? What do we hope to gain from staring at these creatures related but separate from us on the taxonomic tree of life?

In the case of pets, I think that we look at these animals out of love. That’s why it’s so difficult when a pet either dies naturally or is euthanized. A pet’s death is the loss of both a non-human companion and love. Both articles at the top of the page touch on this area.

As for the animals in Ohio, we look at so-called wild animals for some sign of unhindered wilderness and freedom. The tragic irony is that once those animals were set free they were killed.

By humans.

Looking at them through rifle scopes.

Death + Biology Death + Technology Monuments + Memorials

Keeping Your Dead Pets Alive Forever

Amy Finkel, Director

We humans love our pets. A lot. We love them so much that when they die the grieving process can become overwhelming. Over the last ten years the number of companies and funeral homes offering pet memorialization services, products, and bereavement literature have ballooned.

Meg came across the following in-development documentary on pet loss. The film, Furever, has got chops so we’re throwing its director, Amy Finkel, a Death Ref bone.

Ok. Enough with the bad metaphors and puns.

The Death Reference Desk has been running dead pet stories for a long time and we are more than happy to add this one to the list.

Two words: Freeze Drying.

Furever is a documentary exploration of pet preservation, or, the processes by which a deceased pet is professionally conserved. I have shot forty hours of footage of one technique, freeze-drying, which produces disarmingly lifelike results. This seemingly bizarre practice offers a unique perspective on mortality, grief, and mourning. The concepts investigated in Furever will disarm anyone who might want to dismiss the subjects as mere oddball caricatures.


Furever contributes to the dialogue on death and grief, bewildering aspects of the human condition, begun by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, dovetailing with the growing trend toward pet anthropomorphism, and the anguish that befalls the owners of deceased pets. Many dismiss or judge pet preservationists for being “unbalanced,” yet the assorted rituals in place for deceased human loved ones, while precious to those who practice them, often seem odd or unusual to outsiders.

Death + Biology

Lolcats? No, Death Cat.

The story of Oscar, the “Death Cat”, is making the rounds these days. From articles in Discover and the New England Journal of Medicine, to an episode of House to a recent posting on this Danish death-related blog, AND a newly published book, this cat gets around—but only if you’re about to die!

Oscar is a therapy cat who currently resides at Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. His special (and for some, disturbing) talent is seeking out and curling up on the beds of terminally ill patients near death. Then, as soon as they’ve passed, he jumps off the bed and disappears.

Some say the cat is able to smell certain ketones in the blood that are released during the pre-death process. It is similar, they say, to the reported cases of cancer smelling dogs. Others think it’s just a coincidence or that he just likes to snuggle up with the heating blankets often present on the patient’s beds.

I tend to think that Oscar is indeed aware of something beyond human detection. I don’t think it’s that hard to believe that their olfactory senses are so sensitive as to detect almost infinitesimal chemical traces in humans. Think of cadaver or drug-sniffing dogs, for example. Smell is such a powerful sense in both humans and animals—although we humans are like a brick of rock compared to the finely tuned nasal capacity of certain animals. Fun facts: Bloodhounds have over 300 million olfactory receptors and the average house cat has about 200 million receptors. Humans have a mere 5 million (New Scientist). And for more about smell, check out The Smell Report by the Social Issues Research Centre. But why does Oscar feel compelled to lay with the patient? Is he trying to comfort the dying? Or is he just trying to send a message/warning to the living and the dying, that hey, someone is going to die here? Who knows. But I think it’s super fascinating. What do you, dear reader, think?

Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology



The euthanasia of unwanted cats and dogs is a regular occurrence the world over. However, in Japan, it takes on epic proportions. The voracious appetite of the Japanese for all things cute, fluffy and designer has spawned one of the worst adoption/destruction ratios anywhere. Whereas, in the United States about half of the animals in shelters are euthanized; in Japan, that number climbs to a staggering 90%.

The preferred method in Japan is to euthanize the animals by dumping them in an airtight metal box—as many as eight at a time—and pumping in carbon monoxide. This CNN video features one Japanese shelter on a typical day as they round up the animals for disposition. The reporter introduces the story by warning that some viewers may find the content “objectionable.” Yes, but not in the assumed way—not for having to see dogs and cats on “death row” (a misnomer of course since they did nothing wrong to land there, other than to be born). No, it’s objectionable because of the callous disregard for life that put them there in the first place.

This Asahi Shimbun newspaper article describes the ways in which workers at an animal protection center in one Japanese prefecture are doing outreach to school children to sensitize them and teach them about animal cruelty. “Now you understand that dogs and cats also have feelings, don’t you?” a worker at the Mie animal protection center asked students at Ominato Elementary School in Ise, Mie Prefecture, in early September.

The way in which we treat animals is reflective upon how we, as a society, understand life and death. The attendant value we assign to different living things is a sad commentary on the priorities of consumer-driven cultures (USA included) willing to sacrifice innocent life forms in the name of feeding faddish, acquisitive tendencies.

Cemeteries cremation Funeral Industry Monuments + Memorials



People are crazy about their pets. Diamond tiaras, cat condos, doggie daycares serving gourmet kibble, anti-depressants and acupuncture for the unstable pet in your life — all this and more is available for Mr. Wiggles or Li’l Boots. After all, they’re not simply a dog or a cat — they’re family. Current statistics, trend analysis, and the recurring crazy stories bear this out.

Considering that pets replace children for many, it follows that we treat these family members with the same kind of concern we normally reserve for our human brethren. But our animal companions are mortal too and so it follows that an end-of-life plan is just one of the many ways we can show how much we care for that beloved pet.

The pet cemetery industry — like the human one — fulfills our need to remember the dearly departed. According to the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories, there are 600 active pet cemeteries in the United States. And let’s not forget the related satellite industries such as pet funerals, pet urns/memorials and pet insurance which are also big business. Although there is some contention as to the oldest, the Hartsdale (NY) Cemetery and Crematory was established in 1896 and calls itself “America’s First and Most Prestigious Pet Burial Grounds.”

I remember seeing the captivating Errol Morris documentary, Gates of Heaven, years ago. As many reviewers have suggested, this isn’t just a documentary about pet cemeteries; it’s about the human condition. By turns funny, tragic and bizarre, the film captures and distills emotional truth in a compelling narrative. Roger Ebert named it one of the 10 best films of all-time.

On a personal note, Squeakers, my own feline companion of seventeen years, died last year. I chose cremation over burial or any other number of ways I could have memorialized my pet. Call me dispassionate or cheap, but I just couldn’t see forking over a small fortune to memorialize my cat for eternity.

Thinking I would receive a bag of ashes and a bill, I was actually taken aback when I got the call from the vet to come and pick her up. Instead of the ziplock bag I was expecting, I received a small box, covered in hand-made paper, embedded with pressed flowers. Attached to the box was a card and an envelope. The card was signed by the entire veterinary staff, with wishes of condolence flowing out. And the most unexpected of all? A tiny plastic bag (like the kind that comes with an extra button for a new blouse) containing a chunk of her fur and a small piece of card-stock paper with her inked paw-print — her inked paw print! What the? These intimate and personal touches took me by surprise. I guess it kind of freaked me out. I didn’t authorize the cutting of fur and the inking of paws. But I guess that’s how things are done when no specifications are given.

Not that I was angry — if anything, I was a little miffed that the box containing the ashes was hot-glued shut. I guess they thought viewing the ashes would be too much too bear. So being the curious sort, I took a knife and opened it up. I had to see what was left of old Squeaks. As expected, they pretty much looked like all the other cremains I’ve seen. Call me cold, but they are now sitting unceremoniously in a box in my storage unit on the outskirts of Portland. But really, is that pile of dust Squeakers anyhow? Doesn’t she live on in my memory and more gloriously in the photo above? I’d like to think so.

If you want to learn more about pets and death, search your local library catalogue under such terms as pet death, pet loss, pets and grief, pets and bereavement, etc.