When a Kveller reader recently sought advice on finding a Jewish ritual for mourning the passing of her cat, I wrote off the request as being outside of the boundaries of normative Jewish practice. Judaism’s elaborate and meaningful mourning rituals and practices are for people, not pets. I felt that saying kaddish or observing the yahrzeit of a pet, no matter how beloved, would somehow take away from the meaning and power of these customs and laws.
And then our beloved guinea pig Caramel died.
Caramel was no ordinary guinea pig. In addition to her rather impressive size and multiple chins, she was a fairly accommodating rodent who often kept my eldest son company during homework time and who enjoyed a good (supervised) romp on the front lawn (The smells! The tasty grass!). Caramel occupied a special place in our hearts (no offense to her cage mate, Cinnamon), and I knew that mourning her was going to be difficult.
We chose a sturdy shoe box for her coffin and my husband went outside to dig the requisite hole in the yard while the kids mourned over her furry, lifeless body. Not wanting me to close the lid, I explained to them that the coffin is closed during most Jewish funerals so that we can remember the person as they were when they were alive.
My oldest son kept begging us to delay the funeral, claiming that he needed more time before he said his final goodbyes. I explained that in Judaism, caring for the dead is considered one of the greatest mitzvahs (commandments) that you can perform. It is considered a “chesed shel emeth,” a good deed that can never be repaid in this world. I further explained that the custom is to show respect for the deceased by arranging for a swift burial and by accompanying the body to the grave and taking part in the actual burial. I told my boys that by participating in Caramel’s funeral and burial they would be performing a great mitzvah of caring for their beloved pet and honoring her memory.
They grudgingly agreed, and our sad little foursome slowly crossed the backyard carrying the shoe box, and settled Caramel in her final resting place. I explained that the next step is the burial and that Jewish custom is to take turns shoveling dirt on the grave, and that the first shovel-full of dirt is scooped up using the back of the shovel as a further symbol of our reticence to let the person go. Each boy took a turn, sniffling and sobbing as they shoveled. As they took turns, I whispered a silent prayer that they would not have to perform this ritual for a human member of our family for a very, very, very long time. When the grave was filled in, they gathered stones to put on top, echoing the Jewish custom of leaving stones on graves in the cemetery, and then delivered a short eulogy.
At the conclusion of our mourning ritual, we went back to the house and I shared the custom of having a ritual meal after a funeral and burial to reinforce the fact that life goes on, and gave them their choice of food for dinner. Tears were dried and bowls of chicken soup were dished out while we watched a movie on Netflix because, well, they are kids after all.
As we giggled over Rick Moranis’ antics on “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” I sat back and reflected upon the events of the past hour. Although not a single word of prayer was uttered, our guinea pig funeral felt somehow deeply Jewish and traditional in nature and I felt enormous gratitude that our religion provided me with a framework for helping our family mourn the passing of our beloved pet.
Our remaining guinea pig, Cinnamon, looks depressed and lonely (projecting much?) and there are plenty of tears each night at bed time (the boys, not me–I promise!). I continue to dig into my mommy bag of tricks to help my boys process their grief and know that things will get easier with the passage of time. So much of parenting involves making things up as we go along (with a side dose of awesome parenting blogs like Kveller, Google, and Pinterest). I am glad that Judaism’s deep well of traditions helped me navigate these sad and murky waters without having to make too much up along the way.