Burial & Coping with pet loss

We want to help answer questions you may have regarding coping with loss, Rigor Mortis, plus some general tips and ideas around the burial of your pet. 


Burial Ideas

(information from backyardburial.net)

For those of us who feel a strong sense of bond and kinship with our pets, losing them can feel just like the loss of a beloved family member. Honouring  your departed friend through a respectful burial can help the healing process, while erecting a memorial headstone will serve as a testament to your pet's memory.

Before You Begin

If your pet has just died it is perhaps a good idea to wait 3 hours before. Rigor mortis usually sets in within 3 hours and stays with for a number of days. However, this is much more obvious in mammals than in reptiles. A motionless snake could just be sleeping after a large meal.

If you catch the body during the time just after death, you will be able to pose or arrange the body in compact or restful position. Bathing the body in warm water and massaging the muscles can loosen up some of the muscles, allowing some repositioning.

Some pets are easier to determine of death than others. A fish will floating belly-up in a its water . An insect or spider will be on its back with its legs curled in. A bird will lie inert, legs pointed skyward. Take care with turtles and other pets who hibernate. Do not to assume them dead when it may be possible they are sleeping or in shock,  use a pocket mirror to confirm breathing or check the pet's neck to feel a pulse before assuming death.


Should there be a reason to delay burial, it is always advisable to place the body in a well labeled air tight plastic container. If small enough, this can be stored in a refrigerator or placed in another cold location for a couple of days until burial. (There is no need to freeze the body.) The rate of decay can be affected by your climate and environment. Decay takes hold much faster in warmer humid climates.

Choosing a location to bury your pet

The word "nature" conjures up mental images of majestic wilderness destinations, but what about the wildlife sanctuary right at home… your own backyard. The ideal location for the grave would be your very own backyard where you can tend the spot and still feel your pet near you. Be sure that the remains are not placed in a location that could be disturbed by your remaining pets or because the location is not marked well. Make the placement and perimeter clear. Choose appropriate plantings (bushes and or flowers) taking into consideration future additions to the yard.

Choose a location where you do not expect to be excavating in the future. Possibly under a shady tree, make a round hole no less than 24” below the surface. After placing the remains in a Rest In Pets casket cover over the container with soil. There will likely be a small mound of displaced soil. Pack it down as well as you can to avid a tripping hazard. This small “burial mound” will settle in time. Then position your Rest In Pets grave marker with your pets name on. Given this is made of cardboard you may want to purchase a headstone or permanent grave marker. 


Additional backyard burial suggestions

  • Wear long pants and long sleeves.
  • Wear gloves when handling remains.
  • Wash hands off thoroughly with antibacterial soap after exposure to remains.
  • Avoid touching or rubbing your eyes and face.
  • Afterward, wash clothing in hot water and rinse well.
  • Eliminate sources of standing water near the grave site.
  • Discourage pests by keeping your lawn neatly mowed and trimmed.
  • Use stones directly above the burial to discourage scavengers, although a burial depth of 2+ ft is usually enough to discourage this.

Prepare and decorate the grave together 

Rest In Pets wants you to create a meaningful moment for these treasured companions who bring joy to our lives. To unite friends and family together, to build an experience in celebrating your pets life, encapsulating the love and affection in a final farewell.

Ask kids to find objects around the yard to decorate the grave or place in the casket. Provide each child with a collection bag and ask them to collect – shells, flowers, feathers, bark, straw, acorns, leaves, twigs, stones, berries, and keepsake objects such as leashes, collars, favourite toy and even pictures or drawings made in honour of your pet. We have allowed space on the casket to personalise it with your own words and drawings. Touching, smelling, and assembling a memorial display of their own in honour of a dear friend teaches a respect for the dead and the family gravesite reaffirms the importance their loss to the family as a whole.


Pet Loss

For help and advice on Pet Loss please check out one of our friends - www.petmemories.co.nz

This page was found by a child who had recently lost a family dog, they had also been studying the book Marley & Me as a group project for an after school programme, not only did they find this page (Rest In Pets Burial page) useful but also found some helpful advice for kids dealing with the loss of a pet. Check out the link here - A kids guide to dealing with a loss of a pet.

Helping a child cope with pet loss

(information from helpguide.org)

The loss of a pet may be your child’s first experience of death—and your first opportunity to teach them about coping with the grief and pain that inevitably accompanies the joy of loving another living creature. Losing a pet can be a traumatic experience for any child. Many kids love their pets very deeply and some may not even remember a time in their life when the pet wasn’t around. A child may feel angry and blame themselves—or you—for the pet’s death. A child may feel scared that other people or animals they love may also leave them. How you handle the grieving process can determine whether the experience has a positive or negative effect on your child’s personal development.

Some parents feel they should try to shield their children from the sadness of losing a pet by either not talking about the pet’s death, or by not being honest about what’s happened. Pretending the animal ran away, or “went to sleep,” for example, can leave a child feeling even more confused, frightened, and betrayed when they finally learn the truth. It’s far better to be honest with children and allow them the opportunity to grieve in their own way.

Tips for a helping a child cope with the loss of a pet


  • Let your child see you express your own grief at the loss of the pet. If you don’t experience the same sense of loss as your child, respect their grief and let them express their feelings openly, without making them feel ashamed or guilty. Children should feel proud that they have so much compassion and care deeply about their animal companions.
  • Reassure your child that they weren’t responsible for the pet’s death. The death of a pet can raise a lot of questions and fears in a child. You may need to reassure your child that you, their parents, are not also likely to die. It’s important to talk about all their feelings and concerns.
  • Involve your child in the dying process. If you’ve chosen euthanasia for your pet, be honest with your child. Explain why the choice is necessary and give the child chance to spend some special time with the pet and say goodbye in his or her own way.
  • If possible, give the child an opportunity to create a memento of the pet. This could be a special photograph, or a plaster cast of the animal’s paw print, for example.
  • Allow the child to be involved in any memorial service, if they desire. Holding a funeral or creating a memorial for the pet can help your child express their feelings openly and help process the loss.
  • Do not rush out to get the child a “replacement pet” before they have had chance to grieve the loss they feel. Your child may feel disloyal, or you could send the message that the grief and sadness felt when something dies can simply be overcome by buying a replacement.

Age-Related Developmental Stages, Related To The Death Of A Pet (information from aplb.org)

Children do not respond to death as adults do. Their normal reactions are much more natural, curious and varied, until that is changed by the adult world. How the child responds will depend on the strength of the bond with the pet, as well as the child’s age and developmental stage. Always keep in mind that the parent is the model here for almost everything. The general subject of death is not unknown to children. They watch movies, television; they hear reports from schoolmates and friends. You may be surprised at how much your child does know.

2-3 Year Olds: Two to three year olds do not have the life experiences to give them an understanding of death. They should be told the pet has died and will not return. It is important that they be reassured that they did not do or say anything to cause the death. Children at this age may not understand what death really means, but they will sense and copy your emotions and behaviour. Note that it is good to cry and show your own feelings of grief, but these must be controlled and perceived as a normal response to the loss of a loved one. Extra reassurance, as well as maintaining usual routines will help the child. At this age one will usually accept a new pet very easily.

4-6 Year Olds: Children of this age group usually have some understanding of death but may not comprehend the permanence of it. They may even think the pet is asleep or continuing to eat, breathe and play. They may also feel that past anger towards their pet, or some perceived bad behaviour was responsible for its death. Manifestations of grief may include bowel or bladder disturbances as well as a change in playing, eating and sleeping habits. Through frequent, brief discussions allow the child to express feelings and concerns. Give extra reassurance. Drawing pictures and writing stories about their loss may be helpful. Include the child in any funeral arrangements.

7-9 Year Olds: Children in this age group know that death is irreversible. They do not normally think this might happen to them, but they may be concerned about the death of their parents. They are very curious and may ask questions that appear morbid. These questions are natural and are best answered frankly and honestly. At this age they may manifest their grief in many ways, such as school problems, anti-social behaviour, somatic or physical concerns, aggression, and withdrawal or clinging behaviour. As with young children, it is important that they be reassured that they did not do or say anything that caused the death.

10-11 Year Olds: Children in this age group are usually able to understand that death is natural, inevitable and happens to all living things. They often react to death in a manner very similar to adults, using their parent’s attitude as their model. A pet’s death can trigger memories of previous losses of any kind, and this should always be open for discussion.

Adolescents: This generalized age group reacts similarly to adults. However, the typical adolescent span of expression can range from apparent total lack of concern to hyper-emotional. One day they want to be treated like an adult, and the next day they need to be reassured like a young child. Peer approval is also very important. If friends are supportive, it is much easier for them to deal with a loss. Also, keep in mind that an adolescent is trying to find his or her own true feelings, and may be prone to conflict with a parent on how to express feelings and grief, at this time. It is important to avoid antagonisms over this.

Young Adults: Although young adults can hardly be called children, the loss of a pet in this age group can be particularly hard. They may also have feelings of guilt for abandoning their pets when leaving home for college, work or marriage. There may have been a very close relationship with that pet since early childhood. Among other pressures experienced after the departure from home, this can add additional stress. Due to geographical distances, they are often unable to return to the family home to say goodbye to the pet or participate in family rituals associated with the loss.

Children see tears and grief, and they learn from total immersion what bereavement means. Don’t try to protect them from this reality. Let them share your feelings to a reasonable degree - according to their maturity and ability to understand. This will help them to know that grief is normal and is acceptable, in whatever loss they are experiencing. Teach them that ultimately, all life is change and growth. That is a very hard lesson to learn, but a necessary one. They need to understand that tears in a loving and understanding environment can help people get past the worst of the sadness. And through experience they will later learn that time will always help make things feel better.

Questions That Children May Ask

Children may ask many questions upon the death of a pet. This may include why did he/she die? Where did he/she go? Will we see him/her again? Is he/she with God? Can he/she hear us?

It is best to answer questions as honestly as possible - but avoid giving too much detail with extra information. Young children, in particular, need only basic answers to satisfy their wonder. Your responses should also be based on your religious or philosophical views, in regards to the soul and an afterlife. It is also okay to say that you really don’t know an answer. But by all means, share your own personal thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Let children know that it is alright to ask questions, and to cry. And it is okay for you to cry with them - if they perceive that tears can help ease some of the pain.

A child’s ability to cope with an animal companion’s death can be compromised by other stresses, such as parental or sibling conflict, mental health issues, substance abuse, other family pressures - or another recent death. Children in high stress families often develop early dependencies and attachments with a family pet. When that companion dies, it may create a crisis for that child.

As adult helpers and caregivers, we need to be mindful of our own loss history and any gaps in bereavement support for us, particularly when we were children. Many of us have early memories of a pet loss. They may be punctuated with resentment due to a lack of factual information or parental preparation regarding a pet’s death. Too often, we still have feelings that we were excluded from opportunities to say goodbye to a beloved animal, when we were children. In order to adequately support our children now, when they are facing the loss of a pet, we need to heal our wounded hearts, and be mindful of our own “inner child” that may also grieve deeply when a family pet dies. In a too-busy world, so many of us have lost contact with that. Adult relationships with beloved companion animals tend to evoke our own more child-like qualities. And when we lose a pet we can be left feeling bereft, ourselves, longing for the very comfort that we now need to provide our children.

The loss of a pet can be a significant source of grief in a family. Indeed, it is the loss of a beloved member. That can lead to disorganization in family functioning, due to bereavement and changes in routines. New ones will have to be created, and it can be beneficial to discuss this. Children will need support to cope with the changes - as well as to understand the emotional impact on everyone, including their parents. It is important to show them it is good for families to react and grieve together.

Who Else Should Be Informed?

When a child loses a beloved pet it is advisable to inform other caregivers. This includes day care providers and teachers. They are in an excellent position to observe and understand any significant changes in your child. There may be an onset of daydreaming in class, or at home. Homework may not get done, and participation in class may drop noticeably. Appetite and sleep habits may change, or the child may become quiet, or even irritable. These are all signs that need to be addressed. Children can’t cope by themselves, and will need all the understanding and support available. Sometimes, if requested, a good teacher will schedule class time to talk about pets and their death. The loss of a beloved companion animal is often our children’s first real encounter with death, and that experience will remain and affect them for the rest of their lives. They need their adult role models to learn appropriate responses. We can help them by better coping with our own emotional problems.


Rigor Mortis

The rate at which rigor mortis sets in will depend on several factors such as the pet's physique, cause of death and the environment, whether warm, cold, dry, or wet. Different sources give different figures, but very broadly and in 'average' circumstances it begins about 3 to 4 hours after death and becomes complete in about 12 hours. smaller the animal the quicker rigor sets in.

 The cause of rigor mortis relates to energy supply in muscles. Muscles actually use energy to relax, which they do by breaking associations between the actin and myosin filaments that make up muscle. When an animal first dies, muscles are biochemically still metabolically active and so they have a ready supply of energy and can break any links between actin and myosin.

But, as time passes and cells run out of energy, this can no longer be done and the muscles "lock up". This is rigor. After another 10-15 hours has passed in this state, however, the cells and the contractile proteins begin to break down, which causes the return to a flaccid state. Rigor mortis continues for a day or two and then the muscles soften as decomposition sets in.

So, while it might be more convenient to leave your dying pet in the hands of a vet there is no substitute for having your pet’s funeral and subsequent burial in your own backyard