When Pets Die, Jewish Owners Have Options

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By Adam Reinherz 

Death and dying is the hallmark of Sharon Ryave Brody’s business.

As vice president and supervisor of Ralph Schugar Chapel, Pittsburgh’s Jewish funeral home, Brody has counseled scores of grieving families in times of great distress. Despite the countless circumstances she’s encountered, a recent query surprised her: What do Jewish owners do with their deceased pets?

“No one has ever approached me about that before,” Brody said.

Typically, when a pet dies, several options exist, explained Heather Goldstein, a veterinarian at AVETS, an animal hospital in Monroeville, Pa.

People can bury the pet somewhere legally or have it cremated. If they opt for cremation, they can either do a group cremation with other deceased animals or get an individual cremation and have their pet’s ashes returned.

Many Jewish pet owners feel cremation is not a viable option.

“I don’t believe in cremation,” said Bonnie Morris, a cat owner.

Burial can provide solace, explained Adam Levine, supervisor of Friends of Noah, a pet cemetery in Frazer. “Some people connect with their pets more than their family members,” he said.

“Some families get really heartbroken and rightfully so,” said Mike Howard, an employee of Restland Memorial Park, a Monroeville cemetery that has welcomed deceased cats, dogs and even horses. “Some people who come in, that’s all they’ve ever had.”

At Friends of Noah, granite memorials denoting the names of Lily (a cat), Pepper (a dog) and nearly 30 other departed animals are separated by a road and tree line from Haym Salomon Memorial Park, the adjacent Jewish cemetery.

Both burial sites are owned and operated by Levine. The proximity between the two places can be comforting, he explained.  

“When I go to the cemetery, I see my parents’ graves, and I see Kugie’s grave,” Steven Roemer said of his late dog.

But also of benefit to the eastern Pennsylvanian resident is just that the space exists.

“I’m happy that people have a place to put their pets. I know what happens to most dogs; they get cremated,” he said.

“People suffer tremendous loss when they lose a pet,” said Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro, spiritual leader of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation in Pikesville, Md. However, “Judaism forces us to move from the ‘why?’ and ‘why me?’ to the feeling of ‘what can I do now?’”

Several years ago, Shapiro aided a congregant on a journey back from grief.

The middle-aged member had lost two cats and approached Shapiro about erecting a memorial board for pets; within most synagogues, metal plaques, often with affixed bulbs, record loved ones’ names and dates of death.

Shapiro welcomed the idea, but wanted to ensure that the pet panel was clearly and identifiably different than the structures bearing human names. So along with the absence of lights or metal, plastic and glass were used. Also, straying from the somber and traditional tone of most yahrtzeit boards, a rainbow adorning the top, with the words “Hashem’s Little Angels,” was prominently displayed.

Hanging far from the synagogue’s yahrtzeit markers, the Sylvester and Tweety Silverman Pet Remembrance Tribute Board includes 18 distinctly engraved messages. But apart from the spots still available, Judaism itself offers room for grieving pet owners, said Shapiro.

“We can do something that can make us more involved in life,” such as becoming active in our communities, volunteering at a humane society or even adopting a baby pet, he suggested.

And for those seeking to comfort a saddened friend, the Babylonian Talmud prescribes a saying for such circumstances, said Rabbi Shimon Silver, of Young Israel of Greater Pittsburgh.

HaMakom yimalei l’cha chisronecha (May the Omnipresent fill your loss).”

“Many people in our society hold their pets in high regard,” Levine said. And when the time comes for an animal’s demise, it is to be taken seriously. “In Judaism, it is a loss.”

“But there is a distinction between how we mourn for pets and how we mourn for people,” noted Rabbi Barbara Symons, of Temple David in Monroeville.

As opposed to praying, sitting shiva or saying Kaddish, Symons encourages congregants to “tell stories and get photos.”

She also distributes a copy of Remembering My Pet: A Kid’s Own Spiritual Remembering Workbook for When a Pet Dies, by Nechama Liss-Levinson and the Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette.  

The important thing is that people “do something and move from pure pain to ‘what can I do now?’” said Shapiro.

In that way, “a lot of people can work through their pain.”

Adam Reinherz is a reporter at The Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.