Sep 13, 2012

Ritual, money, & the death of a pet

By some accounts, the function of religion in daily life, and especially of religious ritual, is to lend solemnity to otherwise puny, pallid human moments.

I think of this as the Peter Ivanovich theory of religion, named after a character in Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Iliyich. Ivanovich, at the start of the story, finds himself at a funeral and "like everyone else on such occasions, entered feeling uncertain what he would have to do. All he knew was that at such times it is always safe to cross oneself."

This is religion as a response to what could be called existential awkwardness. Ritual being what you do when you don't know what to do. The idea is that religion and/or ritual serve to mark, to recognize the seriousness and importance of a moment that would, without that mark, not seem that important at all. There is, in the act, an insistence that something is important and meaningful, despite how it might seem.

This is how I would see pet funerals, the practice of treating deceased pets to the same processes and ceremonies traditionally reserved for humans.

In a mostly horrid bit of journalism, Business Week recently re-discovered the industry of pet funerals, as seems to happen somewhat regularly. Mostly this piece is a baseless trend story, written up as a will-you-believe-this-ridiculousness?, without actually demonstrating much interest in understanding what might explain this "phenomena" or why people, apparently lots of them, want funerals for their cats and dogs and pot-bellied pigs and hamsters.

There's one interesting moment of insight, though. At the very end, Bob Walczyk, the apparently empathy-less owner of Forever Friends in Green Bay, Wisc., notes that services such as his allow people to solemnize their pets' deaths and lives, and to do something, perform some act, that declares the importance relationships with their pets.

Except, for Walczyk, what allows people to mark out meaningfulness in the face of apparent meaningnessless isn't religion, and isn't ritual. But money.

As the reporter writes,
"the most valuable secret he’s learned after years in the business, Walczyk says, is that selling a pet funeral means never offering the lowest price. Customers aren't looking for value; they're looking for quality.  
 "'We're the most expensive place in town,' Walczyk says with a laugh. 'And everybody still comes to us.'"
Maybe one should update Tolstoy: "All he knew was that at such times it is always safe to spend money."

One way to think of this would be as a market essentially functioning to replace religion in modern life. I wonder, though, if it might not be more helpful to broaden the standard understanding of ritual, to think about how consumption can also be ritualistic, and how, whether people are religious or not, there's still this need to mark out aspects and moments of life as different, and rituals still serve this important, Peter Ivanovich-function in people's lives.