Pets now frequently mentioned as family member in obituaries

BY JOSH SHAFFER Modified: January 22, 2009 at 12:22 pm •  Published: January 22, 2009
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RALEIGH, N.C. — When Anna Ruth Jones died in Durham, N.C., last week, her obituary listed a few cousins and special friends. But the most prominent survivor, the only one described as "cherished,” was Sir Rufus of Iredell, her black-and-white cat.

The feline’s elevation to grieving relative represents a new step for household pets: special mentions in notice of their owners’ death.

On a single day last week, dogs and cats merited a spot in five local obituaries — more than one-fourth of that day’s total. Buzzy the canine pal. Beloved dog Sport. Simba. Trixie. Mikey. And Sir Rufus.

"That was her child,” said Jones’ neighbor Perry Norris, describing the cat’s royal air. "He was a tuxedo type.”

Regard for pets has steadily grown to the point where some enjoy health insurance benefits. Lawyers now build careers on defending furry clients. And books can be bought explaining how to name a pet executor, along with instructions for obtaining a pet’s living will.

New York hotel maven Leona Helmsley famously left $12 million to her Maltese named Trouble. In North Carolina, High Point publisher Randall B. Terry bequeathed an estimated $1 million for the care of his six golden retrievers.

For Deborah Bowen, a social work professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, mentioning pets in obits is a natural shift. As society has become isolated by computers, cable television, job transfers and 50-hour work weeks, pets fill a void too wide for busy humans, said Bowen, author of "A Good Friend for Bad Times: Helping Others Through Grief.”

Look at the way medicine for animals has changed, she argued. Families routinely pay vet bills that top $1,000, getting treatment once reserved for people. It’s natural, she said, that the same regard would extend to death, regardless of who’s in the casket.