Funeral for a Dog
This is the full text of the farewell ritual performed on December 21, 2014 in memory of my dog, Ronan.
Elements of the North, of Earth, locus of Will, of patience, endurance, stability and tenacity – draw near and bear witness.
Elements of the East, of Air, locus of Creativity, of wisdom, intellect, perception and inspiration – draw near and bear witness.
Elements of the South, of Fire, locus of Energy, of passion, of love and laughter – draw near and bear witness.
Elements of the West, of Water, locus of Body, of strength, pleasure, fertility and receptivity – draw near and bear witness.
Elements of the Center, of Spirit, locus of that which transcends our senses, draw near, bring guidance to this circle and bear witness.
A funeral for a dog. What a thing, huh? Here we are, people at various stages of our complex journeys to enlightenment and actualization, pausing for a few minutes to honor the passing of a simple animal. Many would find this ceremony silly, and yet the bond we felt for that little animal was undeniably real.
Anthropologists tell us that our ancestors began domesticating dogs as long as 35,000 years ago. So human and dog, we go way back. Not only that, researchers have recently discovered that when it comes to intelligence, dogs do a lot better job learning from us than wolves and chimpanzees, two species that are far smarter. So clearly, there’s a symbiosis to this relationship we have. We have spent 35 millennia evolving together. That’s 1,750 human generations, and it’s 3,500 or more canine lifespans.
I’ve been thinking a lot these last couple months about why we love dogs so much. A lot of people point to their wonderful qualities – they’re smart, they’re affectionate, and the virtue we attribute to them most often is their unwavering loyalty. All this is true, but I think there’s more.
I think we each project the qualities we most admire onto dogs. If you’re smart, you might seek out a smart animal and you focus on that intelligence. You train the dog and brag to your friends about how clever it is. If you have been betrayed in life, how can you help treasuring that deep vein of loyalty, that willingness to literally die for you? Someone who loves to laugh – someone like me, for instance – is going to cherish a dog’s completely unselfconscious joy.
Dogs have evolved for 35,000 years, in other words, toward a very human ideal. People let us down all the time. They hurt us, they betray us, they can be ignorant and hateful, cruel and manipulative and selfish, but in Dog we have a friend we can count on, a companion who is utterly devoid of all that disappoints us about people.
We have done all we can to mold them into living, breathing archetypes of the good and noble. They are daily reminders of what we aspire to be. In many respects, they are the embodiment of our dreams for ourselves, and when we look at them, when we walk them, play with them, pet them, feed them … say goodbye to them … I don’t think we can help trying to be worthy of what they are – of what we made them.
Christians say God made Man in his image. Maybe, maybe not. But there is no question that we made Dog, not in our image, but in the image of that which we wish we were.
As we celebrate Ronan MacScottie and all he meant to us, we should take a few moments to mark the road he traveled. He was born in Brighton, Colorado, not far from here, on September 3, 2002. He had three siblings and both parents, we’re told, were champions.
It’s worth noting that Angela and I didn’t pick him so much as he picked us. We were playing with these four adorable puppies the night we visited the breeder and I realized I had left my checkbook in the truck. So I went back out to retrieve it, and when I came back in this black little bundle of attitude came bounding across the floor toward me. He then pulled up, barking at me, and those of you here will know that way he had, where the front half of his body would bounce up and down as he put his whole being into expressing himself. That was the first time I saw that behavior, and in that moment the decision over which pup should we get was made for us.
Ronan MacScottie was well traveled. He lived in five states – Colorado, New York, North Carolina, Washington and Oregon – and passed through 17 or 18 more. He died in Bend, Oregon on the 19th of October. It was a beautiful fall morning – crisp, cool and clear. We got up early and went outside, where he rested in the grass as the sun rose. Later, as we drove to the vet, he rode on my lap with his head out the window. At the end, he was lying in the grass under a tree, with Dad at his side.
Ronan was a tough, brave dog. He once chased a fox. He chased a coyote – scaring me half to death in the process. He chased a 7-point buck 200 yards into the woods when we lived in New York. Of course, he was also afraid of veterinarians, flies and loud noises. He liked cats, although they didn’t always like him back. He chased squirrels, and on the campus of Wake Forest University in 2006 he nearly caught one. He likely would have had his Mom not yanked his leash back just in time. He chased rabbits and prairie dogs, and never came close to catching any of them.
Ronan wasn’t much for fetch. He might chase a ball a couple times, but usually the game would end quite suddenly. He was, however, a fantastic soccer player. He’d push the ball with his nose and could turn almost without breaking stride. If I had his kind of ball control skill I’d have made a fortune as a professional footballer.
Ronan was a very smart dog, but it didn’t always show because he simply didn’t care – unless you had a treat in your hand, and then it was clear just how bright he really was.
He was also sensitive in ways most people never saw. He wasn’t cuddly and would make it a point to stay just out of petting range most of the time, especially if he didn’t know you. He was stand-offish and aloof, but trust me when I say that he liked being around people, so long as they respected his space. He was a supremely confident dog with a robust ego – he knew when he was being talked about and admired, and he reveled in it.
Ronan was funny. I have never known an animal with so much personality, so much sheer charisma. He would usually wind up every afternoon around 4 or 4:30, and when he did he’d bark, run in circles, rub his face on the carpet, terrorize a toy or two … this often started up when I’d try and get him leashed for his afternoon walk, and it could take ten minutes to get him rounded up sometimes.
I do not exaggerate when I say that Ronan made me laugh every single day we were together for 12 years. Those were often dark times for me, and a lot of those days that laughter, that smile was the only break in the clouds I saw. This laughter was one of the greatest gifts the universe has ever bestowed on me, and my gratitude is eternal.
We’re gathered in this particular spot because our morning walks, for two and a half years, brought us through here, and he always seemed to like it. Many mornings there were squirrels to chase, and every morning there were interesting smells. If Ronan MacScottie had a motto, it was “no blade of grass shall go unsniffed,” and I daresay there are very few blades of grass on this lawn that he didn’t have thoroughly catalogued.
We arrive now at the point in the ceremony where we call on the gathered spirits to watch over our friend, wherever he may be. I wonder, though, how much watching over a dog like Ronan really needs. Probably a more useful invocation would ask the spirits to preserve the squirrels on the other side from him.
But nonetheless, we do call upon the elements of the North, of the East, of the South, of the West, and of Spirit to keep an eye out for our friend. A few days ago I donated all of Ronan’s things to the Rocky Mountain Scottish Terrier Rescue. His crate, his daybed, his toys, his leashes and harnesses, his fleece coat, which was handmade for him by his Grandma Pat, all are now going to be put to good use for Scotties who don’t have it as good as Ronan did. So I’d like to ask whatever spirits are attending this remembrance, and my guests as well – please do what you can to help those dogs who aren’t as treasured as Ronan was. Take care of them, as I did Ronan, and as he did me. All dogs should be safe, sheltered, well fed and loved. All should know the warmth of a happy home and be free in return to fill that home with joy.
I want to thank those of you who came to tonight. Frank and Pat, when we’d come to visit I remember how Ronan would sprint into and around the house until he found you. Roseanna, I think getting to spend time with you and Stephanie was the most joy he ever experienced, and the fact that you came from Denver to Seattle this summer to visit him says as much about how loved Ronan was as anything ever could. Rho and Brandon, every time you came over you could count on being barked at until he realized it was you, and then he could relax. Terry, you spent less time around Ronan than the others here, but he got to visit your home. He sniffed around and explored, then settled in like it was his own. He was at ease. Katherine and Sarah, Ronan visited your home, too. When he did, you petted him, fed him carrots and made him feel welcome.
Finally, Angela. Were it not for you I’d never have met him. I know how much you loved Ronan and one of the saddest moments I have ever had to endure was last August before we moved to Seattle, watching you say goodbye, knowing that you would probably never see him again. You always did what was right for Ronan, regardless of the cost to yourself. You were perhaps more worthy than anyone of his love. I want to thank you for insisting that we bring him into our lives. We were all Ronan’s pack, and you were the one who forged it.
If anyone here would like to say something about Ronan, we would honored by your words.
As you can see, I’m wearing my kilt this evening, and have marked the center of the circle with my sword. I have also brought some Scotch, and anyone who would like can share a sip with me. Ronan never made it Scotland, but like all of us, he was shaped by traditions that were beyond his immediate experience. So I want to honor that heritage, which I share, and I invite our guests to join us.
[pour malt, drink, offer to guests]
And now, we say goodbye.
[open box, prepare to scatter ashes]
I call on the Elements and on those gathered in this circle to bear witness.
[Bare arm, reveal tattoo]
Ashes to ashes,
our flesh is bound by blood, by
ink, by art and word.
The veil is thin here
on Solstice, the New Moon dark
Elements, draw near.
Man and Dog walk, in city
and wood. Attend them,
mark their woven paths,
laughter and barking ringing
through the Summerlands.
Good night, buddy. I love you, and I’ll be along soon.
Elements of the Center, of Spirit: we honor your presence. Stay if you will; go if you must.
Elements of the West, of Water: we honor your presence. Stay if you will; go if you must.
Elements of the South, of Fire: we honor your presence. Stay if you will; go if you must.
Elements of the East, of Air: we honor your presence. Stay if you will; go if you must.
Elements of the North, of Earth: we honor your presence. Stay if you will; go if you must.
Thank you all for coming, and thank you for all the times you each made Ronan’s day a little happier.