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Your pet fish – the beloved family friend – has gone, quite literally, belly up. What do you do when a pet fish dies? How do you respectfully bury a fish? What does a fish funeral look like, and how do you properly dispose of a dead fish while respecting the emotions of your little ones?
A fish funeral may seem silly to some. But to those families that watch, feed, play with, and take care of their special pet fish, the death of a little friend can be a big deal.
For many children, this can be their first encounter with death. You will want to handle the situation well so that love is shown to all and peace is known in your home.
This means showing respect for the life of your pet, being conscientious of the emotions of others, and at the same time maintaining health and hygiene when burying, cremating, or otherwise disposing of the dead fish.
We’ll do this in two parts. The first section answers the question, How do I properly dispose of a dead fish? The second section talks about what to do when a pet fish dies – how to handle the family emotions and worries about death while laying your pet fish to rest in a way that is sanitary and meaningful.
Let’s dive in.
Part 1: How to bury a fish
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Proper disposal of a dead fish
First of all, contrary to the otherwise amazing film Finding Nemo, never, ever flush a fish – alive or dead. A live fish won’t survive, and any fish can introduce new bacteria or disease into another ecosystem. In many regions it is actually illegal to flush fish. So please do not do it!
Secondly, before disposing of the fish’s body you will want to make sure it is truly dead. Fish can occasionally appear immobile because they are sick or hurt. Sometimes, a fish may swim on their side or upside down because they are constipated.
Some tips from WikiHow on determining whether the fish is actually dead or not:
- Check the gills, eyes, and skin carefully.
- Watch the gill covers closely. For a few moments, watch your fish to make sure it’s not just breathing very slowly.
- Does it respond when you gently nudge it?
- If the skin has become discolored or white, it may indicate rotting, parasites, or disease.
- Look at your fish’s eyes. If the eyes have turned grey, then the fish has passed on.
Once we’ve confirmed that the fish has indeed departed, and have eliminated flushing as an option for burying a fish, there are three main choices left:
- Waste disposal
- Bury in the ground
Let’s look at these three options in turn.
In other words, throwing the fish in the trash. If you don’t have kids, or if your children are not very distraught at the death of the fish, this can be a simple and easy option for you.
Make sure that you put the fish into an airtight container first – a ziploc bag will do nicely. This will prevent any odor and will also help prevent a foraging animal to try to get into the outside trash.
We would advise double-bagging the fish in two sealable plastic baggies, then placing it inside your regular garbage bag. Tie that up well and place it into your main garbage can.
However, you’re probably reading this article because your family was very attached to the fish, and you would like to pay some proper respects to both the fish and to those in your family who are saddened by the loss. That leaves cremation and burial as the best disposition options for your pet fish.
This isn’t the easiest method, but some pet owners prefer cremation as an honorable way to say goodbye to a beloved fish. There are several ways to cremate a fish, here is one from a real fish owner on BettaFish.com:
- Place the fish on a piece of aluminium foil and on a cookie sheet and put them in the oven on 200-250 degrees, starting at 15 minutes. Keep in longer if needed. You need to make sure you dry out the fish as much as possible.
- Once dry, take them out and put them on a plate and let them cool for a few hours.
- Take an old pot that you don’t mind a fish being in, and build a fire. Make sure the fire and embers are nice and hot, place the pot on the hot embers. This will take several minutes.
- Once it gets to a certain point, you may need to gently press the fish to create more ash than char.
- Once you have the ash consistency you want, remove from the fire and let the ashes cool COMPLETELY before bagging or placing in jewelry.
As step #5 hints at, cremation is the best option if you would like to make a keepsake out of the remains.
Burial is probably the most popular option for an honorable disposition. Cremation takes quite a bit of work, and throwing the fish into the trash can seems a little heartless, so most fish owners tend to decide on burial.
So let’s take a look at how to bury a fish.
First, prepare the fish’s body for burial. If the burial will take place more than a few minutes after you discover the death, you will want to preserve the body. This will prevent an unpleasant odor. Also, do not leave the fish in the water, as it will most likely swell.
Double-bag the fish inside two sealable ziploc plastic bags – place the fish inside the first bag, seal it, and then put that one inside a second baggie. Place it in the freezer, away from any food that might become contaminated. You may want to place the double-bagged fish into a plastic container as an extra precaution.
Make sure that you wash your hands before and after each time you handle the fish.
Next, you’ll want to find a suitable spot for burial. Most likely this will be in the backyard. Make sure that you dig deep enough that a dog or scavenging animal won’t smell and dig up the pet. Three feet is an ideal depth. Several fish owners have suggested the idea of burying a small fish in a flower pot. This gives you a built-in memorial plant.
Last, consider a burial casket for the fish. You can actually buy some (see below), or have the kids participate in making one out of eco-friendly cardboard. You can also bury the fish in a wide variety of containers: Glass jars, tupperware, tins, small keepsake boxes, a cardboard box, an envelope, eco-friendly bags, or small keepsake urns.
Fish burial casket ideas
Most people choose something simple to use as a casket – usually a cardboard box. Other ideas include glass jars (canning jars or used jam jars), plastic containers, biodegradable baggies, tins, or just about anything else of the appropriate size.
Here are a few attractive fish caskets that you can order online and have delivered to your door within a few days. If you order one of these, remember to store the fish in the freezer until ready for the burial.
Paw Pods Eco-Friendly Fish Burial Pod
These eco-friendly “Fish Pods” are natural and biodegradable mini caskets for fish. From Paw Pods, who have created an entire line of earth-friendly burial options for small family pets.
100% Recycleable Sealable Plastic Bags
This ventures a little more into the DIY model, but at least it has a water-life design! These are wood pulp paper-based bags that are BPA free, so it will be perfect for a “natural” burial of a pet fish. Plus you can continue to use them as earth-conscious sandwich baggies after the fish funeral.
Tree of Life Memory Box
Here is an attractive and affordable keepsake box with a lovely hand-carved “Tree of Life” design. It will work for a small fish (the box only measures 6″ x 4″) but it presents a nice vessel into which you can lay a beloved pet fish to rest. Larger 9×6 version is available here.
Alder Wood Pet Urn as Burial Casket
Getting into some premium American-made products, you can use a small cremation urn such as the Alder urn pictured above as a burial casket for a fish.
Cedar Wood Pet Urn as Burial Casket
Here is the true premium option for a wooden fish casket. Crafted in the USA from real aromatic cedar wood by a longtime funeral home supplier for wood cremation urns. This small pet urn can hold a small fish and be safely buried in the ground. A very special way to remember a beloved family pet.
Part 2: Family-Friendly Fish Funeral Ideas
What to do when a fish dies
To avoid the spread of bacteria or disease, you will want to take care of the body right away. Here are the steps to take after you discover that the fish has died:
- Check to make sure the fish is actually dead. Observe the eyes and gills, and see what happens when you nudge the fish a few times. Fish can sometimes swim on their sides or even upside down when sick, so take a few moments to make sure the fish has actually deceased before proceeding.
- Place the fish inside of a sealable plastic bag. Then put that sealed back inside a second one, washing your hands carefully inbetween. Then place the double-bagged fish into the freezer. This will allow you some time to figure out next steps. See part 1.
- Clean out the fish bowl or tank. This will get rid of bacteria and, if there are other fish, keep them safe from potential infections or harm if the first fish died because of bacteria or sickness. These things can be difficult for non-professionals to diagnose, so it is best to be safe.
Tell the family
Consider the age and sensitivities of family members, and take a few moments to tell them gently that the fish has died. Use simple terms for young ones, and don’t be afraid to use the word “dead” or “died.” It can be confusing for young children when adults use euphemisms or just beat around the bush, so it is best to tell them gently and plainly what has happened.
It can also be a good thing to for an opportune moment to break the news, but don’t wait too long or they may discover it for themselves and/or feel deceived about the issue. Use wisdom and discretion when telling family members, and keep things simple.
An opportunity to talk about life & death
Use the time as an opportunity to talk about life and death. You and I may be a little jaded from living in this world longer than about 7 years, but our children take their pet fish very seriously. They will be sad when the family fish dies, and perhaps you will be too.
You can help make this sad event into a time of emotional and spiritual growth for your family by simply talking about it. You don’t have to be a professional, and you don’t have to have all the right words. Just talk about your emotions, ask your kids about how they are feeling and what they are thinking, and tell them it’s ok. As your kids learn how to safely talk about their feelings and appropriately handle their emotions regarding the death of their beloved fish, they will be that much more prepared to handle other difficult events in their lives. This is simply good parenting.
It might also be a good idea to read a couple children’s books together that deal with grief and death. Here is our list of 101 Classic Books to Help Children Grieve, which includes books that talk about pet loss, family loss, grief, and more from a wide variety of perspectives. Specifically for Christians, here are 10 Solid, Biblical Christian Books for Kids About Death & Heaven.
Plan the funeral – together
Planning the funeral is a great way to turn talking about the death of the pet fish into actually doing something. Sometimes it just feels good to act; to move rather than remain in stasis.
Everyone should still practice talking about their feelings when a loved one has died, but many people feel much better after the physical act of doing. Giving a memorial gift, sending sympathy flowers, arranging a funeral, bringing a meal, and so on. It’s no different for children and their pet fish.
Take some time to write out ideas on how to celebrate the life of the fish. Write poems, draw pictures, paint a rock for the headstone. Get the whole family involved.
Fish funeral ideas
Here are a few ideas you can use to mix and match in order to create a special funeral for your fish.
- Ask the child/children write down a few words about the fish or how they are feeling. They can read it out loud, have a parent read it, or bury it with the pet.
- Prepare a few words to say at the gravesite. Ask your kids what they would like you to say.
- Do something that allows the kids to participate. Have them help dig or cover the grave, toss in a handful of rock from the fish tank, or read/say/pray something. This will help give them closure.
- Have everyone simply say “Goodbye, ___.”
- Read a prayer or poem.
- Choose a marker to go over the grave. A medium-sized rock is a good idea, the kids can decorate it with paint if they like. You can also plant a flower or tree over the burial spot.
After the funeral
Once the funeral is over, you can use the fish bowl, tank, or aquarium in several ways.
- Add a new fish. The new fish will never replace the old one, but it will often help the family through the sad time of mouring the loss of the original fish.
- Use it for a memorial. You can put flowers or a little keepsake token inside, or personalize a special rock if you are continuing to use it as a fishbowl. Here is a small custom engraved memorial rock, or have the kids each paint a stone as a memorial craft project.
- Pay it forward. Give the fishbowl and accessories to another family with little ones. Make sure to clean it out very well beforehand.
Also, keep in mind that your kids will continue to think about and grieve their fish friend. You may want to set a reminder in your phone or calendar to bring it up with them in a week or two. Another idea is to check out from the library or order online a few age-appropriate children’s books that address death and grief. Here is our list of suggested classic titles.