The death of a family pet can be just as devastating to its owners as the loss of a family member or close friend.
For several years, the Rev. David L. James has helped to ease the emotional pain associated with these difficult circumstances by presiding over pet cremations and funerals at the Hartsdale Cemetery in New York.
A resident of Shelton, James is the cemetery’s chaplain. Although he has resigned from the Episcopal Church, this unique ministry began while he was still officiating at a congregation in Westchester County, where Hartsdale Cemetery is located. James was called to parishioner Jacqueline Turkel’s home to offer solace when her beloved cocker spaniel passed away. His work even garnered attention of an HBO television special, “One Nation Under Dog.” He was interviewed for the special.
“She was a widow and for a long time this dog had been her only companion,” James explained.
When Turkel asked him to say a few words at the animal’s burial at Hartsdale Cemetery, James agreed. Another pet owner saw him in clergy attire and asked if he would also bless their pet’s grave.
“It all just grew from there,” James noted.
Since 1914, the Hartsdale Cemetery, on a bucolic hillside in the former orchard of its founder, Dr. Samuel Johnson, has become the final resting place for more than 80,000 pets.
“It’s a gorgeous place,” said James.
Although he describes the work as “sporadic” — at least a couple of times each month — James is called upon to minister to those who are healing from the loss of a pet.
“Funeral services give us a sense of peace and help keep our beloved friend forever in our hearts,” James said.
The liturgical service begins in the chapel on top of a hill at the Hartsdale Cemetery. Beforehand, James talks to family members about their pet. He asks them to recall anecdotes about the animal who had become an intimate part of their household.
“The casket is then carried down the hill to the graveside,” James explained.
The ceremony often includes prayers, poems and eulogies. James said he likes to read from a book he wrote, From Loss to Hope. The recitation of Psalm 23 in the Bible is frequently requested.
“Whether an animal was our sole companion or a member of our family, we grieve deeply at our loss,” James said.
For children, the loss of a pet can evoke painful emotions. James said young people inevitably ask him if their much-cherished dog or cat will go to heaven. In response, James shares a poem he found on a Hallmark card that describes pets as “not human, yet they bring out our own humanity, sometimes in ways that other people cannot.”
James himself doesn’t have a pet at the moment. He and his wife Elaine are waiting to move before welcoming a pet into their lives. James married Elaine in 2006 after his first wife, mother to his two children, Ben and Wendy, passed away from cancer.
James witnessed first-hand how family pets interact with their owners in a special way when he came home one day to find their big coon cat lying across his sick wife’s lap.
“She had just a round of chemo and was sitting in a recliner,” James explained. “My wife was never crazy about the cats. I was the one that took care of them. But that day, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘They know.’
“There’s something we don’t understand but the cats came to her when she had this chemo and it was near the end.”
James now finds it rewarding to be able to help others through their painful journeys.
“It is very, very gratifying to do this work in that you see the needs of people and can help them to find peace and comfort,” James said.
For three years, from 2006 to 2009, James offered hope to those who lost pets on a weekly radio show that aired from Beacon, N.Y. More recently, James was part of the HBO television special “One Nation Under Dog” which aired in June and July.
“There were three parts, fear, loss and betrayal, and I spoke about loss,” he explained.
On Sunday, Sept. 9, James led a Blessing of the Animals in honor of National Pet Memorial Day.
James was ordained in 1982 after making a career in the publishing business. Although no longer with the Episcopal Church, James officiates at baptisms and weddings at various venues. He also presides at funerals held at the funeral home or at the graveside.
“I still minister to people,” James explained. “I minister to those who are spiritual but not necessarily religious.”