This post reflects on personal experiences of pet loss and its archaeological (i.e. material, architectural and spatial) dimensions. For while this is a personal reflection, it touches on widespread trends in the contemporary world regarding pet death, disposal and commemoration.
Folks might be shocked when I admit this to being my first-ever mammalian pet loss.
Sure, I had tropical and then temperate water fish as a child and maintain a tank of temperate water platys and zebra danios now, but it was in August 2019 that two guinea pigs joined our family: Cheese and Pickles.
They have become familiar parts of our lives but sadly, last week, Pickles passed away after a short illness. He died while still at the local veterinary practice during a second visit to try and ascertain what was wrong.
This pet death was a blow to the entire family, accentuated by the fact that Pickles had been at the vets and sadly was never to return. We arranged for his cremation the next day at the Brynford Pet Crematorium by Pet Funeral Services Ltd.
I drove to Brynford the following day – only two days after his death – to pick up his cremains. I entered the office and before I’d looked up, the staff member had placed on the counter the remains of Pickles. They had carefully enclosed his remains in a small sack which was in turn encased securely in a small dark-wooden casket. The inscription afforded his name, age and date of death. ‘Pickle’ was inscribed accurately based on the information supplied by the vet. As it was not an error by the crematorium, we decided not to query that.
Why is this relevant to my Archaeodeath blog?
This was especially upsetting since Pickles died during my participation in UCU strike action over pay and working conditions. The loss was therefore another dimension to the ongoing stress of my life right now which has led to depression, lack of sleep and anxiety regarding my work and future. This is a further reason why I haven’t been blogging much over the last month, nor vlogging via YouTube. Having said that, I have tried to keep the TikToks going on non-strike days.
Second, this gives me a first-hand insight into the experience of engaging with the material cultures, architectures and environments of animal death and human-animal relationships surrounding mortality and remembrance. This is a topic I’ve written about repeatedly on this blog in regards to past and present animal death. For instance, I’ve considered animal commemoration within mortuary landscapes as well as at heritage sites and museums. Indeed, I’ve addressed the archaeology of contemporary pet death as part of my Afterword for the book Entangled Beliefs and Rituals.
Third, I realise that pet death is closer to human death than I’d hitherto realised in early 21st-century Western societies. Partly this was always the case and I’d never realised it. Still, I do feel this reflects a shifting and increasingly proximal relationship in terms of material and spatial practices accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns. This is because this created an environment in which time funerals were restricted and access to cemeteries and other memorial environments curtailed. This was when I had to deal with human mortality in the form of a death of a family member. The distance of experience and practices between human and animal deaths have become reduced. I say this because while a human death is more significant in personal and social magnitude and significance for me, the process of dealing with the cremation of the body without a funeral and with no subsequent memorial services means that the processes, spatialities and materialities bear closer parallels.
So, let’s review the experience from my perspective.
The timeline of the dying, death, disposal and commemoration of Pickles
First up, let me briefly outline the sad demise of Pickles aged 3-and-a-half to 3-and-three-quarters (he joined us in August 2019 and he was very young).
Pickles was not eating or drinking adequately. Despite various attempts to encourage and vary his diet, careful monitoring ensued for c. 48 hours before it was decided that the vet should be called and Pickles taken for an examination – this had been the first and only time Pickles had been poorly.
Two visits to the vet took place separated by two days – the first time to ascertain whether there were obvious issues that could be diagnosed and treated (there were not), but Pickles was given antibiotics and painkillers which seemed to assist with his eating and drinking. However, he declined once more and a second visit was to ascertain whether a more detailed examination would reveal the problem. Pickles went under general anaesthetic to investigate his teeth and body but nothing could be identified. I didn’t visit the vets each time so this part was outside my experience, but he recovered successfully from the investigations each time but on the second visit did not recover and passed away a few hours later. Our children were deeply sad, my eldest who is autistic, has struggled most and cried for hours. It was an informal period of mourning that hasn’t since really concluded.
The next day, Pickles’ body was, with our agreement, collected and cremated and my direct involvement was the day after when I visited Brynford to collect his tiny cremains. As described above, the staff were very friendly and sympathetic and the striking setting of expansive grounds around the pet crematorium and pet cemetery beside the A55 just outside Holywell are worthy of another blog-post in its own right. Around the historic farm buildings extended with a crematorium and cafe there are lawns, ash-scattering areas, a pond and water feature, and columbaria and graves to a host of different animal species, and also some human burials joining their beloved pets.
Receiving the ashes back was an emotional shock. Somehow I tricked myself into thinking it would be straightforward. Yet, the slight error of name on the inscription was not queried by us because (as stated) the error was on the part of the vets and we hadn’t corrected it. In any case, the key priority for us was to bring little Pickles home for the kids to say goodbye.
Receiving and holding the casket on the drive back was a truly sorrowful experience – the diminutive size of the little box making his demise all the more touching somehow. For whilst reduced in scale from the size of a guinea pig, in contrast to larger animals the casket does actually feel comparable, although of course lighter, to having a guinea pig in one’s lap. Meanwhile, the texture and temperature of the casket were obviously and ultimately not that of a furry animal. So the scale, shape, haptics and kinaesthetics of the casket in holding it was moving, affecting that sense of present-absence and evoking an absent presence.
We’ve organised no ceremony or single collective family discussion, but we have placed Pickles’ casket upon the window sill adjacent to where Cheese remains happily munching in his enclosure. The children have observed it and we have talked about it and Pickles. We have explained that Pickles is back with us and will stay.
Mourning the death of Pickles is an ongoing process, as is what to do with his cremains.
His death was swift and unexpected but his insert cremated state means we have a stable, inert, portable and storable Pickles. We can take our time in making a decision regarding what do we next.
Indeed, the decision might have already been made: the casket has facilitated his permanent return home. Pickles can remain upon the window sill for now and for any duration of time. Pickles is home – he has gone away and returned – and that’s what matters.
At a future date, shall we scatter or bury Pickles’ ashes, and just leave him be where he is now?
The specific significance of handling cremains in a container relates of course to my decades-long reflections and interpretations of the meaning of cremation and post-cremation ritual practices in past societies as well as in our contemporary world. I now have a further example of ‘hands-on’ experience with which to take back to the archaeological record…
Both in terms of my personal experience and academic research, Pickles will live on…
My sympathies, Howard. It’s easy to dismiss the very deep grief of pet mortality as an indulgence. But a connection with a living thing is a connection regardless, and that investment – as you point out – is so much more than simply practical or logistical. You raise the very interesting point that disposal of pet remains are probably the only time that we have (nearly) full and complete “hands-on” control of the rituals and pragmatics of death. Without very firm guidance from the regulations of law and the traditions of religion, what do we do with that freedom?
Sorry for your loss. I think losing a pet is a really difficult thing – grief, guilt and that unsettling lack of legitimacy of those feelings when wider society makes light of them if connected to animal death. I had pet rats for many years and would bury them in the garden when they died. Over the course of a decade or so the flower border around the lawn was filled with little plots and I sometimes wonder how that created circle would be interpreted in the future. If it might help, somewhere like Timpson would be able to engrave the s on the casket.
I’m sorry to hear of your loss. Pets are part of your family, and it hurts to lose one. I hope the situation with the strike action resolves soon – it’s dreadful that so many talented, hard-working people in this country need to strike to get the pay and conditions they deserve.
I understand. These fluffy Tribbles are a much larger than life presence in ones life (I have had two also, both sadly gone to their maker.) I miss the excited squeaks in the mornings, and the general talkativeness of them.
Have you thought of a new companion for Cheese? please do, they are better together.