Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to mourn the passing of Piney.

While perhaps not a full-fledged member of our family, Piney was no less loved for being, technically, a hamster.

Beatrice especially, Piney's owner, had a special place in her heart for Piney, who came into our lives roughly three years ago, after a sufficient, if all too brief, period of mourning had passed since the demise of Beatrice's previous hamster, Rosie.

We thought we could never love another hamster again as much as we had loved Rosie. In fact, some of us -- I'm talking mainly me here -- thought that we shouldn't even try, that the best way to honor Rosie's memory was to never again purchase another small rodent -- be it hamster, gerbil, mouse, fancy rat or guinea pig.

But Piney proved us wrong. We loved Piney as much as we loved Rosie, which is to say we loved Piney as much as it is possible to love a hamster. No more and no less.

Who can forget the day we saw the hand-lettered sign up on the bulletin board at church that said "Free Hamster Babies"?

Free hamster babies. If there are three words more suited to cause irrepressible joy in an 8-year-old girl's heart, I haven't seen them.

I'll be honest, some of us tried to repress that joy, but there's no denying that when I saw all those little furry balls in that aquarium, even my hard heart softened a little. Yes, we could have taken more than one, but isn't it better to have trained our love on a single hamster than been profligate with our affections?

Piney is dead. But let us focus on his life. And what a long life it was, in hamster terms. Piney came from a large family. He had eight brothers and sisters, and we are told that he was the last member of his litter to pass away.

While it's true that in those three years one day was pretty much like the next for Piney -- eat, sleep, roll around in a plastic ball while his cage was being cleaned -- he seemed to live his life to the fullest. Or as full as a nocturnal rodent can.

He ran around in his little wheel. Sometimes his wheel would squeak and he would wake us all up and Mom would have to grease the axle with vegetable oil. And sometimes Piney would dig in a corner of his cage and nothing could be done to stop him from his ceaseless scrabbling and some of us would pass an uneasy night dreaming we were being attacked by giant voles.

It's hard to convey exactly how it makes us feel to know that we will never again hear that scritchy-scratchy sound.

Piney's life was not without adventure. On more than one occasion after putting him back into his freshly cleaned cage and turning her back on him, Beatrice noticed that the little scamp was nowhere to be seen. I don't like to think of these episodes as Piney "escaping," more that he had inadvertently stumbled upon some momentary weakness in his enclosure and, confused, had exploited it.

And if Piney didn't always technically "come back," he was always "apprehended without incident."

In these episodes we all learned a little something, mainly that a hamster that looks pretty fat is actually capable of squeezing himself into some very small spaces.

Those of us who knew Piney knew him as a great lover of wood shavings. Many is the time we watched him push himself through those clear Habitrail tubes, moving shavings from one part of his cage to another, and then moving them back again. I hope we all learned a little something from his industriousness.

Piney ate his food and drank his water. He was fond of carrots.

Piney did occasionally literally bite the hand that fed him, but that happened only a few times and, again, was probably accidental. I don't think he drew blood that often.

Did I mention that Piney was fond of carrots? I did?

Well, how about that he was furry? Piney was furry. Yessirree. Regular little fur ball. Sort of honey colored, if honey was a little browner than it normally is.


Look. Here's the bottom line: You get a hamster, it's gonna die. It's a question of when, not if. That doesn't make it any easier, but it's not like it comes as a total surprise.

No, no. Stop crying. I didn't mean it that way. I'm glad we had Piney, really I am. Remember that time we were hit by a blizzard and we couldn't get the serum to that mining town and we had to send Piney through the snow to deliver it? Or when Piney fought off the rabid Rottweiler that terrorized us? Or rescued Beatrice from the well? Or took Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club championships?

Kidding! I'm kidding! Come on, can't you take a joke? Let's not ruin this very nice funeral with tears.

While Piney's mortal remains were reposing in the freezer -- oh, and that reminds me: Let's throw out those Lean Pockets -- your mother prepared a very nice funeral bier for him. Give that woman a shoe box and a paper doily and she's a regular Martha Stewart.

I don't think Piney suffered much, and now he is free. What we must remember is that Piney is in a better place, a place where he's free to move wood shavings around to his heart's content, free to play with Rosie, the other hamster, and with Alex, the goldfish, although, admittedly, that would require some sort of hamster aqualung.

Long live Piney.

In memory of Piney: Oct. 12, 2001-Sept. 23, 2004.