Luna-Belle's final farewell: How we honour pets who have passed on, and why it matters

In late December, Anson Chappell brought his dog's ashes back to the place she loved the most. It was an act of remembrance for a pet who helped to shape his life, and a reminder of how hard it is to say goodbye.

'I always thought it'd be really nice to bring her back here for a final kind of resting place'

Luna-Belle was, in the words of her owner Anson Chappell, a canoe dog. She loved hopping in the boat for a ride down the Yellowknife River. (Photo submitted by Anson Chappell)

Somewhere on the trails surrounding Yellowknife, Luna-Belle's spirit runs free. 

The northern dog — her owner, Anson Chappell, lovingly refers to her as a "Sahtu special" — spent most of her 16 years in the Northwest Territories before living out her final days in Calgary after a family move.

In late December, Chappell brought Luna-Belle's ashes back to the place she loved most. He invited the CBC's Loren McGinnis, who hosts The Trailbreakerto share in the experience.

"I was putting the mason jar [with her ashes] in the bag, and I was like, 'Come on, Luna! Let's go for a walk,'" Chappell recalled with a laugh.

"I always thought it'd be really nice to bring her back here for a final kind of resting place."

On his recent trip to Yellowknife, Anson Chappell hung Luna-Belle's bell and spread her ashes on one of her favourite trails. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

The public farewell he gave her wasn't what he'd originally intended — later, he told CBC he'd planned for it to be a private experience.

But the friendly pup had made plenty of friends in Yellowknife over the years, and he decided he wanted those friends to know she's home.

Saying goodbye

He spread her ashes on her favourite trail, and hung up a memorial bell bearing her name.

It was a clear, cold day; the sound of joyful barking from dogs who had tagged along, unaware of the solemn moment they were interrupting, filled the air.

It was, he said, perfect.

Luna-Belle was a canoe dog, Chappell said — she liked nothing more than hopping in the boat for a ride down the Yellowknife River. He got her from a friend in Norman Wells back in 2006 or 2007, and before he knew it, she became an integral part of his life.

Perfectly at peace, Luna-Belle lounges in a canoe — one of her favourite places to be. (Submitted by Anson Chappell)

"We as people have been living with dogs for tens of thousands of years — we've evolved with them, and they ask for nothing in return except for some liberty and some respect. So I wanted to pay respect to her this way, and also pay respect to the land that she came from, too," he said.

A few days after hanging up her bell, Chappell went for a walk back up to that spot with his good friend Kirk Tastad.

"He said that whenever he walked by, he would sort of say hi to Luna, and always just remember that spot."

Tastad, a pastor at the Holy Family Lutheran Church in Yellowknife, said the unforgettable companionship pets like Luna-Belle provide can make it hard for some people to deal with their loss.

A "Sahtu special," as her owner Anson Chappell describes her, Luna-Belle lived most of her 16 years in Yellowknife. (Submitted by Anson Chappell)

"They're our comforters, our exercise partners, our listeners — kind of that steady presence," Tastad said.

With COVID-19 still ongoing, they also help give some people something to focus on and schedule for.

Tastad, who still has two dogs of his own at home, said his family put one of their dogs down a couple years ago. Lefse — "potato pancake" in Norwegian — was a rescue dog whose health got worse as he aged.

Tastad's family felt the loss of their pet, but also gave him a quiet and peaceful passing at home.

"It was beautiful — the vet came and we did it on our back deck. And we made space for that," Tastad said.

"But it's always hard, right?"

'It can change your life'

Chappell's hope is that those who heard Luna-Belle's story think of their own pets and what they might do when the time comes.

He also hopes it inspires some people to take the leap into pet ownership.

"Maybe they'd consider an SPCA-type dog, a mixed dog. You know, there's all kinds of nice dogs out there, but some dogs have had a hard life and need a little bit of extra support from people," he said.

"It really can change your life."

That's a sentiment Troy Bellefontaine, who lives in Fort Simpson, knows intimately. Bellefontaine has long been involved with the NWT SPCA, often volunteering to help them out in the Fort Simpson area.

Bellefontaine has seen both sides of the relationship between humans and animals — the ugly, and the uplifting.

Troy Bellefontaine, who lives in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., often helps dog owners navigate difficult situations with their pets. (Submitted by Troy Bellefontaine)

They require commitment and responsibility, he said, but they can enrich our lives immeasurably if we let them.

"To me, it's so important — it gives you a sense of purpose, because you're looking out for them," Bellefontaine said.

He's still looking for the best way to memorialize his dog Stacey, who died a year and a half ago. He had her cremated, and he's still keeping an eye out for an urn that fits her personality.

"We want something that's kind of fancy, and we've just been waiting to find the right one," he said.

Troy Bellefontaine's dog, Stacey, frolics in the snow in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. (Submitted by Troy Bellefontaine)

What to do when that day comes

Tastad said the question of how we deal with death is one many of us don't talk about or think about.

"I think in our culture, we've kind of pushed death to the side because we're afraid of it," he said.

"When death happens quickly and suddenly ... I think in some ways it hits us harder than it would have if we had maybe spent some time asking that question."

Kirk Tastad is a pastor at the Holy Family Lutheran Church in Yellowknife. (Submitted by Kirk Tastad)

Talking about it can help us work through our feelings, he added. That's also why many spiritual communities have rituals.

"I think that helps, in times of death — you know, learning to let go or say goodbye in a way that's meaningful," he said.

"Rituals do well at naming what has happened and marking it. I'm thinking of my own tradition — they help with giving language to our grief with words, to name what has happened but also offer words of hope and comfort for the days that are ahead."

It's also why some of us tell stories about those who have died. Tastad said he thinks it helps us understand ourselves, too, as we verbalize how relationships have touched our lives.

"I think we don't share that kind of stuff enough with each other," he said.

With files from Loren McGinnis