The Sweet Strange History of Cat Funerals
Funerals, of course, are not a happy occasion, but they serve an important purpose: they give the bereaved a chance to celebrate the dead person’s life, to mourn together, and hopefully, to begin the healing process. When a pet dies things are a bit murkier. For a human death there’s an accepted script to follow: for a dog or cat, no so much. But anyone looking for a fitting way to mourn Fido or Fluffy might be heartened to hear that cat (and dog!) funerals actually have quite a lengthy history.
Mimi Matthews, who writes a fascinating historical blog touching on a huge variety of subjects pertaining to daily life in the 19th century, spent a little time examining the ways Victorian-era men and women mourned their cats. She found multiple instances of cat funerals, some quite elaborate, reported by newspapers of the day. These occasions, while viewed with amusement or even occasionally derision by the publications that reported on them, were taken very seriously by their human participants.
The following, for example, describes the funeral held in 1894 by a Kensington lady “of distinction” for her cat, Paul:
Except that the Church did not lend its sanction, the function was conducted quite as if it had been the interment of a human person of some importance. A respectable undertaker was called in, and instructed to conduct the funeral in the ordinary way; the body was to be enclosed in a shell which would go inside a fine oak coffin. There were the usual trappings, including a plate on which was inscribed the statement that ‘Paul’ had for seventeen years been the beloved and faithful cat of Miss —, who now mourned his loss in suitable terms. The coffin, with a lovely wreath on it, was displayed in the undertaker’s shop, where it was an object of intense interest and not a little amusement.
It is unclear how widespread the practice was, or whether this was the 19th-century equivalent of one of those New York Times trend pieces where three anecdotes constitute a trend that’s sweeping the nation. But the fact that the Victorians were very attached to their pets is attested to by the existence of several pet cemeteries throughout England, including the Hyde Park Pet Cemetery, which saw its first burial in 1881 and still exists to this day. On the London in Sight blog you can see several photos of the cemetery and its little headstones, including one for ‘Jim, a little dog with a big heart’.
The majority of burials in these cemeteries were for dogs — according to the article, dogs were extremely popular in the 19th century, owing in part to Queen Victoria’s fondness for them, while cats continued to be viewed with suspicion as “sly opportunists”. Which, as Mimi points out, makes cat funerals all the more touching, since the folks carrying them out were going against the grain of society by declaring their affection for their deceased feline friends. Which, it is my hope, may galvanize you a little, if you ever find yourself in this position, to mourn your cat or dog friend in whatever way you see fit.
• Read more about Victorian cat funerals at Mimi Matthews’ blog.
• Take a little visual tour of the Hyde Park Pet Cemetery at the London in Sight blog. Warning: If you’ve ever had a pet, some of the inscriptions on these little headstones may make you cry. (They made me cry.)