Saying goodbye is valuable for all life, no matter the species

Todd Van Beck's picture

The first month at my first job in funeral service (I was very young), the firm I was associated with was summoned to a mansion to make the removal of an extremely wealthy person who was a member of one of the pioneer merchant families. In other words, he was "loaded!"

Everybody in the area knew he was a total recluse and basically was never seen anywhere, let alone at the great big department store his family owned downtown.  I had driven past this man’s mansion a thousand times and it was a gloomy “Withering Heights” looking thing which had a scary looking brick wall surrounding the property.  Every time we would pass the mansion, the same story would be told.  Whether the story was true I never found out, but it was one hell of a story.

The story goes that this old multimillionaire recluse had been a passenger on the “Titanic.”  As everybody knew, the “Titanic” sank with a terrible loss of life.  However the stunner about this old recluse and the “Titanic” was that this man was supposedly the man who had dressed up like a woman to escape the fate of the ship’s sinking – remember, women and children first.  The story that somebody had dressed up like a woman to get off the “Titanic” was common knowledge; I had seen it in the 1952 movie “Titanic” with Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck.  However, the local twist was that this recluse millionaire was the actual person who had acted in such a cowardly manner.

The story continued that this man returned home in total disgrace because he had easily been found out and quickly identified, and that his utter and complete shame was the reason for his total withdrawal from society.  It was one hell of a story, and gave us all the heeby jeeby’s when we would tell it.  Today I doubt that it is true, but it is still a good story.

This night the alleged “Titanic” recluse had died and the firm I was associated with was called in.  My boss told me to say nothing, absolutely nothing, just stand there looking stupid, which I was able to do perfectly without any error.

When we arrived at the mansion, we were instructed to go to the back door for privacy.  As we entered the mansion, the widow was sitting at the breakfast nook with a half empty bottle of vodka – it was 5 a.m. and she was popped.  I felt sorry for her until she opened her mouth.

The bereaved widow left nothing to the imagination.  She declared to all that her husband was worthless, the years with him had been wasted, that he was reprobate, rogue, a rascal, who ignored her and worse was a complete and worthless coward, and she wanted him out of the mansion – NOW!

Her instructions were clear.  Burn him up immediately.  Do nothing, say nothing, just burn him up.   Not even an obituary, although she did ask if cremation was absolutely the cheapest way to go.  What did she want to do with the cremated remains, you ask? Who cares? was her response. She told us to do what we wanted to with them.  I suspect they are still sitting in the mortuary, in the eternally, absolutely free cremation storage closet in the basement of the mortuary since 1966!

I did not feel so sorry for her when we left.  In fact I felt mighty happy to get out of that house with a deranged widow present who was polishing off a gallon of vodka and sitting extremely close to carving knives and other such sharp kitchen weapons.

Not one word was said on our trip back to the mortuary.

The millionaire was cremated.  End of story?  Well, not quite yet.

About two years later we received another call from the mansion.  There had been another death.  This time, however, we did not take the funeral coach, but instead the sedan. 

Once again my boss instructed me to play stupid and say nothing, and I am happy to report  that my skills at acting stupid had definitely improved over a two year span of time – by this time I was an expert at the art of stupidology.

Once again we went to the back door, and once again here was the wife of the deceased millionaire at the breakfast nook, again with a bottle of vodka, again chain smoking, again dressed in a skimpy nightgown – she was again popped.  The only difference, which was a big difference, was that this time she was out of her mind with grief.  She was weeping, sobbing, crying, bawling so much so she could not talk.  Finally she blurted out, “She is in there,” pointing to the mansion’s library.

“Ishy Pishy Poo Poo” had unfortunately passed away.  The death was not totally unexpected as the poodle was 300 years old, but still the death had come as a horrible shock to the nervous system of this poor woman.

Courageously my boss looked my way and instructed ME to pick the dead dog up and wrap her in a baby blanket and carry her gently out to the sedan.  I damned near burst out laughing – you want me to wrap up a dead dog with a what? but my boss was deadly serious – he was not laughing at all.  The removal was professionally made and off to the mortuary we went.  Not one word was said, but having grown up on a farm where animals were usually seen as just animals, my brain was spinning with thoughts that still to this day must be kept private.

“Ishy Pishy Poo Poo” was placed in a solid bronze child’s casket filled in the bottom with dried ice, and taken to the mansion to lie in state in the library surrounding by Ishy’s favorite toys, bones, rags, food and water bowls, winter apparel and of course surrounded on the book shelves by the likes of “Moby Dick”, “The Scarlett Letter,” “Plato’s Apology” and other classics in literature.

A grave was dug on the property and the local vault company lined the grave with concrete and brick.  In time an extremely nice monument was erected with Ishy’s vital statistics engraved, and the inscription “Love Is Eternal.”  I was not allowed to attend the funeral – it was a private affair.

The pet owner’s grief was real.  It was true.  It was authentic.

Having grown up around farms, I was struck for many years after this experience by the seemingly odd fact that this pet owner would expend more time, money and emotion on a dead dog than on her own dead husband.  However my confusion over such life matters simply reflected my innocence and naïveté concerning such matters.  I was unenlightened. I had not lived long enough.

I today watch the pet funeral area growing by leaps and bounds, and I say bravo.  Yes, it is probably sad that a woman will think more of memorializing her dog than her husband or vice versa, but who is to really judge this?  Is it really that sad?  I say no, it is not.

Given the state of affairs concerning just marriage – let’s see a 50%+ divorce rate for going on a half a century, then add to this everyday cheating, lying, and a myriad other reasons why human relationships fall apart . Contrast to this vulnerability the possibility of loyalty, unconditional positive regard, total commitment, fun, entertainment, cuddling, walking, playing with a pet. Why shouldn't the living give their dead pet who was more trustworthy, kind, and considerate than the dead human the experience of leave-taking and saying a formal goodbye?  I again say bravo.

In fact, children are instinctually programmed to have funerals for their dead pets, long before they have figured out the meaning and purpose of adult funerals.  Leave a child alone and don’t let adults fiddle with things and corrupt them, and sure enough, when their pet dies there will be some type of funeral.  Too bad children grow up and become adults concerning funerals.

I have watched, albeit from a distance, one of the large professional associations embrace pet funeralization and memorialization and I say go for it.

Given the fragility of human adult relationships these days, the innocence and security that many pet relationships offer creates bonds, lasting bonds, which are filled with wonderful memories.  Honestly I have encountered many adults that when I look back at my relationship with them the memories are – well let’s just say they are less than stellar – and some of these people have been dead for years – I have not forgotten.

However when I remember my little dog “Tinker Bell,” yes folks that was her name, “Tinker Bell” (anybody want to make something of this?), my memories of that little dog are of sitting with her on the banks of the Nishnabotana River in Iowa and pouring my soul out to her about people who had upset me or did not understand me – my goodness Tinker Bell was a marvelous listener.  In fact I have never encountered any human being who could match her in listening skills.  She seemed to understand that you cannot talk and listen at the same time.  She never said one word, just listened and licked my face – what great memories.

When my dog was put down (that’s an Iowa phrase) I was devastated, however my buddies and I gave her I believe four different impressive stately funerals in one day, and while I could not afford a solid bronze child’s casket, my buddies and I all worked on an orange crate and painted it a beautiful bronze color, lined it with a white sheet, put a transverse cut in the lid and held a public viewing in my barn. That was indeed “Tinker Bell’s” precious metal casket.

Grief is an emotion pure and simple.  Love is an emotion pure and simple.  They go hand in hand in life.  I have had people in my life profess love and take it back and I have done the same thing.  I have had people all my life say this and that – but it was only words, no action, and I have done the same thing.  Yes, here and there in my life noble human beings have emerged who are trustworthy, loyal, and kind and good listeners, and when that happens my life is indeed sweet.

It was my pet, however, who batted 1,000 in these “sweet” characteristics.  It was my dog who was my buddy and friend, companion and confidant.  It was my dog who when she died indeed deserved a funeral – she got one, and even to this day I feel peace of mind and a long standing feeling that I and my kid community did the right thing – she died in 1962.  I bet even Ishy’s mother would agree with me on this point, with or without the vodka.

It is a danger for human beings to distance themselves too far from our animal friends and compatriots – we inhabit the same globe – none of us can escape, we are on this planet together.  Bonds that create security, stability, comfort, loyalty, support, unconditional positive regard, I vote are good no matter where they come from.

My vote is for us to jump on the pet funeral and commemoration movement in a big way, it seems to possess all the ingredients necessary to really help people out. And in the end what more do we have to offer our communities, our friends, our family, and today, our pets?

I believe that funeralization and memorialization are wise and valuable for all life, no matter their technical genus or species.  Saying goodbye under any conditions just makes sense.

Anyway that’s one old undertaker’s opinion. TVB


Most FDs that I know who have human and pet businesses state, without hesitation that they would prefer to have just the pet business. Maybe that will be my next adventure into spreading myself too thin.

A simple, village ndertaker