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During many decades in the news business, I wrote and edited more than my share of obituaries, and found the task fulfilling. There’s satisfaction in reviewing a life well (or not so well) lived, and capturing the essence of it as an example for others to either emulate or eschew.
It’s been a while since obits were part of my daily routine, and in the interval, the tenor of them has changed – mostly because in large measure they’re now paid announcements written by survivors, or in some cases, by the deceased themselves.
This has its merits and its flaws. Rather than reflecting the tightly written and matter-of-fact style of editorial staffers, today’s obituaries have a warmer glow about them. But they don’t always reflect accuracy, since the writers sometimes rely on fallible memory and unverified family legend.
All in all, though, I like the new versions.
Back in the day, for instance, you wouldn’t have seen this line, which recently popped up on the list of survivors in a Providence Journal obit: “Last but not least, her devoted parakeet, Chicho” (and notice that equalizing “not least”).
As obit standards evolve, more of them include family pets as survivors. Others cited in the Journal recently included “her faithful pup Molly,” “his beloved dog Millie Rose,” and “her beloved dog, Sparky.” A recent obit in the New York Times listed among survivors “his beloved dogs Jumbo and Jynx.”
In an age when pets are increasingly considered family members rather than possessions, recognizing them in obits is no longer uncommon. And since where I live our “family” includes two Tibetan terriers and three miniature horses (the latter in residence on the property for nearly 20 years), you can guess that it makes sense to me.
It does to others, too. One recent study by a team of researchers from universities here and abroad searched thousands of newspaper obituaries and concluded that pets are indeed being legitimized as bereaved survivors.
Dogs seem to get half the mentions, but also included as loving survivors have been cats, birds, donkeys, cows, horses, and in at least one case, a pig.
In a number of obits, companion animals have gotten higher billing than some of the human survivors.
The study, published in the Journal Anthrozoos, noted that these close ties can span generations. An example is the obituary of a man who left behind “his beloved granddogs” and whose “non-furry grandchild will arrive in May.”
Could be one needs to live with a pet to appreciate the depth of affection between humans and their animal companions.
One woman was so devastated by the loss of her golden retriever, Charlie, that she wrote him up on Twitter, and her sentiments quickly went viral.
She tweeted,”We will think of him every time we open the peanut butter. We will miss him every time we see a sock on the floor or pass a stick on a walk. We will carry him with us everywhere. He will be forever missed and remembered, but he left behind his fierce love, which never wavered.”
That’s all the explanation needed for why our pets merit rightful places among those who mourn, and who, in their turn, are so deeply mourned themselves.
Gerry Goldstein (email@example.com ) is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.