- Mourning Animals: Rituals and Practices Surrounding Animal Death ed. by Margo DeMello
A book about death, loss, and grief is not an easy read, especially for those who care for animals. However, Margo Demello and other authors have managed to provide a collection of works that sheds light on this richly complex yet still neglected topic, packed into an intense, moving, and well-researched book.
Mourning Animals, which opens and closes with series of pictures, consists of almost 30 contributions from different disciplines, photography included, and is divided into four parts. In the first one, the essays are characterized by a diachronic approach to the theme of animal burial and bereavement in the past (both remote and recent), animal sacrifice, and questions about whether animals have souls.
It is extremely important to take into account the historical depth of the human-animal bond, of which animal burial (from Neolithic times to the first modern "pet cemeteries" dating back to the end of 19th century) constitutes a cultural expression. This perspective helps to counter the still common perception of current companion animals' phenomenon as a recent "derive" of Western civilization and as a direct consequence of opulent economic conditions existing in those societies that can afford the luxury to maintain certain animals as "pets." On the contrary, both historical and ethnographical evidence has provided a long and compelling list of cultural contexts where a strict bond between humans and certain animal species (dogs, pigs, birds, bears, etc.) exists, notwithstanding chronic food shortage and limited subsistence conditions.
The second part of the book is dedicated to prototypic "grievable" animals. By their human counterparts, companion animals are often described as friends, family members, or even children. Humans and animals belong to the same family context; share intimacy, space, time, habits and daily routines; intertwine their own biographies; and take part in the creation of narratives that surround and sustain their family's identity and history. It is these narratives that have to be adjusted, and somehow rewritten, when a companion animal dies. Emotional bonds undergo a process of transformation, and many cultural practices take place "in memory" of the dead.
Despite these practices of grieving having been confined to largely private contexts, more recently we have witnessed a spread and an increase of funeral rituals, secular and religious ceremonies, and burials for animals. Currently, the phenomenon of "pet cemeteries" is on the increase internationally. Indeed, there's more to this trend than sociogeographical aspects. Such cemeteries represent a clear cultural statement: They claim certain animals are worth mourning and deserve a social place where their bodies can be taken care of and where they can be remembered and granted certain rituals. In taking care of their animals' bodies, people perform the last action in the process of "identity making" of their animal companions (the process of zoo-poiesis). [End Page 114] Those animals' bodies are not treated as waste, but as the last remains of "someones" who were important—as individuals—to their human companions.
Against this background, the authors from this section cover a series of topics encompassing different countries (from England to Poland, from the United States to South Korea), shedding light on current social trends surrounding companion animal loss (including mourning practices, taxidermy, cryopreservation of semen—as reproductive substance and memorial object, children's ways of mourning their companions, condolence cards, etc.).
In Section 2, but also elsewhere in the book, some contributions directly tackle the theoretical (ethical, psychological) issues that frame the phenomeneon in question, while others start from case studies or single stories of human-animal bonds to stimulate reflections on a wider scale. There is a balance between these two types of contributions, which results in a harmonic and pleasurable reading. Sometimes single animals—with their proper names, biographies, relations, and even idiosyncrasies—emerge from the written pages as protagonists of ethnographic studies (see, for example, the story of the mourning of the neighbor cat Vince in a Northern English city) or as...