When a Pet Dies

When a Pet Dies

I was on deadline when a reader called, weeping, with an urgent question: “Do you think my Rudy is in heaven?” Rudy had died during routine surgery. His death was a shock. Rudy was only 8 years old. Rudy was a cocker spaniel.

We talked awhile. The church he attended was ominously silent about whether pets go to heaven. I didn’t know how to reassure him, but he sounded a little relieved when I noted a verse from Psalm 36: “Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens … you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.”

Do pets have souls? This week I wonder again. My ancient cat died Monday — just short of 21 years old. I’m dazed and saddened, but awed at her longevity. Molly lived to 100, in human years. She was queen of her little patch of West Meade for two decades. She outlasted the administrations of Reagan, Bush, Clinton and (almost) another Bush. She weathered (outdoors alone) the ’98 tornado and condescended to accept a blended family of three other cats and a Corgi.

Next week is St. Francis’ feast day, and a handful of local churches will honor him by scheduling Blessing of the Animals services. The October services address an overlooked corner of spirituality, the role of animals in the heavenly scheme of things. We took Molly to one when she was a bored teen; I like to think the spiritual vibrations she absorbed that afternoon added years to her life. It was, at least, a soulful experience to join in on official prayers surrounded by furry critters, not just us anxious humans.

Do animals go to heaven? I’ve never heard a sermon on the subject. Some Christians will say it’s a frivolous question, smacking vaguely of paganism or animals rights militancy or “radical environmentalism.” They say it devalues the uniqueness of the human soul to concede value to animals. They protest too much.

The extraordinary life of St. Francis (1181-1226) contradicts these suspicions. He not only started an influential monastic order and spread a message of gospel simplicity across Europe. He not only popularized Christmas nativity scenes. He not only bore the mysterious stigmata, the wounds of the crucified Christ. He was also famous as a Christian ambassador to animal planet. 

According to his biographers, he made friends with any number of rabbits, frogs, insects and wolves. In the Italian village of Pian d’Arce, he once preached to an assembly of crows and pigeons, reminding them to praise their Creator just as people do. This was no sentimental stunt. Francis had an overwhelming feeling for God as the source of all things. Love of creation meant keeping a mystical bond with it all.

It’s as if Francis had just walked off the ark with Noah after the Flood, and was deeply impressed by the rainbow, God’s sign of a benign new relationship with Earth, “the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations.” (Genesis 9)

All were put into the same boat of God’s care. Some people insist only humans have souls because only humans have free will and need salvation. But animals care for their young, they suffer and die. They’re part of the creation story.

In America, 68 percent of households have pets (says the American Pet Products Association in a 2017-18 survey), up from 56 percent 30 years ago. Pets provide spiritual solace in a harsh world — affection, innocence, a link to mother nature. Animals show us grace and beauty; their wildness demands respect. I think of them as refugees from the original Garden, still carrying that aboriginal innocence. The fall of humanity wasn’t their fault, but they keep paying a price as victims of human violence.

Churches annually honor a saint who worshipped a biblical God big enough to include all creatures great and small in the divine mercy — a Creator vast enough to carry everything from past to present to future. Francis called all things his brothers and sisters, part of the family. It was a weary task to bury my loyal little feline friend, but I thought of the big family reunion that faith dares to hope for one day.