A controversy has been playing out in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle over whether animals have souls and whether it is appropriate to say traditional prayers at their burial.
This debate is also to be found in other faiths, and not just in modern times, but dating back several centuries. However, it has acquired a new intensity today.
Until recently, two or three generations within a family lived in the same house, if not in nearby streets and certainly the same town. Now they are dispersed. For those for whom the support of relatives has disappeared, pets have become a new source of warmth.
In addition, many people are living alone - whether through choice, divorce or bereavement. But most of us still have needs that a pet can provide: the house is no longer empty, they help give structure to our day through feeding times and walks, while we talk to them freely...and often get some sort of response.
Many people treat them as a fully-fledged member of the family. Those pets end up exerting an enormous influence on the lives of owners: planning our diary around being back in time to let the dog out, finding a holiday flat that takes animals, or making sure we book not only the plane but also the cattery.
Within Judaism, some rabbis follow the declaration of the 10th century scholar Saadiah, that animals do have souls and go to heaven, whereas others prefer Maimonides' opinion in the 12th century that it is reserved for humans only.
What is much more definite is the recognition by clergy of all faiths today that when a pet dies, the effect can be deep traumatic for their owners. After years of camaraderie together, we feel a real sense of bereavement.
We are also hit by many of the same emotions that occur when we lose a person, with tears, emptiness and depression. There can also be the added guilt that arises when one has felt obliged to put a pet down.
Many feel the need for religious rituals to give expression to such grief. It is no longer sufficient to delegate matters to the vet to do a cremation out of sight. Ministers are increasingly being asked to advise on, or conduct, pet funerals, be it in the person's garden or a pet cemetery. Special pet services are being created that both articulate the sense of loss and give thanks for the time spent together.
This has now become institutionalised in the prayer book of Reform Judaism with liturgy for the death of a pet, which refers to 'the years of loyalty and companionship that we have enjoyed, and all the moments of happiness we have shared'. Orthodox Judaism, by contrast, does not feel it appropriate to have such readings.
To be honest, whatever people may believe, we do not truly know what happens next and whether humans have an afterlife, let alone animals. And if there is a human heaven, is there a separate one for animals or do they share it with us? We will no doubt find out when the time comes, but for now, all we can do for sure is find ways of mourning their loss meaningfully.Suggest a correction