I remember standing in the playground on a chilly November day. It was 1963, 50 years ago.
We were supposed to be getting physical exercise, and the nuns kept trying to get us to move around, but we were resistant. We were deep in conversation about what was going to happen to President Kennedy’s soul.
The nuns, we agreed, were not doing a good job explaining the concept of a soul, so we were trying to figure it out ourselves during recess.
The shock of Kennedy’s assassination was making the adults at home and the nuns at school talk a lot about death, and we were confused. We wanted to make sure President Kennedy got to the right place.
“If our heart is here,” Marybeth reasoned, putting her hand over the thumping on the left side of her chest, “then the soul has to be over here,” placing her hand directly on the right side of her chest. Symmetry of heart and soul mattered to Marybeth.
“Nuh-uh,” said Annemarie. “Your soul has to go right up to heaven as soon as you die, so it has to be here.” She placed her hand on the top of her head as if she was holding on to a chapel veil, keeping her soul from escaping.
Anne wanted a quick-release trigger to get that soul out of the cranium and hurry it on to its heavenly destination. This was Annemarie’s solution for a speedy soul transport. Anne had overheard her parents saying the president had been shot in the head, and she was worried they had shot his soul too.
Where’s Princess the Poodle?
Alice Oppenheimer’s poodle had just died, and Sister Paula Jeromita told her dogs didn’t have souls. We were stumped about where Princess the poodle was now and where she was hanging out in the afterlife.
In retrospect, I don’t believe Sister Paula used good judgment in telling Alice, age 7, that when a good person dies, his soul goes to heaven, but when a dog dies, they are as dead as a doornail. Humans are superior to animals, Sister explained. They have immortality. Animals have death.
Always somewhat defiant and blasphemous, I told Alice that “Jeromita the Beater” was full of garbage, and I thought Prinny was with Alice’s grandma, eating heavenly dog biscuits and never having to walk on a leash again.
Alice seemed to get some comfort from this idea. Sister Jeromita was so mean she was probably a dog hater, we surmised. The thought of smearing some dog poop on the back of her habit crossed our minds, but 7-year-old judgment prevailed. We wanted to make it to third grade alive.
The Big Question
Now that I’ve made it through the eighth grade and veterinary school, I am often asked by young and old alike if I think animals go to heaven.
Birds, bunnies, all our little friends… Is it possible that death is final for them?
This is a bleak idea when we are faced with losing a cherished furry family member. Many religions teach that the idea of immortality and heavenly rewards are for humans only.
Theology is for theologians, I have decided. How does anybody get the final “word” on the “Word of God” and know who’s in heaven and who’s not? Have they been there?
My internet search brought me to multiple Christian-right websites. I have to tell you this is the first time I have ever visited these sites, being a mostly lapsed Catholic with a politically liberal bias. But my thousands of years in Catholic school have given me a good foundation in spiritual quandaries.
“Do dogs go to heaven?” proved an interesting search. The Judeo-Christian hard line is that animals don’t get a heavenly reward. Poo on that, I say.
A Matter of Interpretation
One fact was obvious in my search: You can interpret the Bible to say just about anything you want it to say.
I was drawn to the parts where Christ and the armies of heaven were “riding on white horses” and Isaiah is spouting off about wolves dwelling with lambs, leopards hanging out with kids, cows and bears munching lunch together, and all these beasts being led around by a little child.
Now take Ecclesiastes. He’s a really cool read. He’s got man and the animals all in the same place, going to the same place. And no day is complete without a little Job:
“Ask the animals, and they will teach you…. In God’s hand is the life of every creature, and the breath of all mankind.” —Job 12:7, 10
Mormons say, “Go for it! Animals get to heaven!” Islam teaches animals have souls, but the afterlife question gets a bit murky. Eastern thinking seems to elevate the entire question to something more beautiful and less didactic; animal souls apparently transmigrate and benefit from the wonders of reincarnation.
Souls Behind These Eyes
As a veterinarian, I look into many eyes every day, eyes buried in fur and whiskers. They speak to me. These eyes are oceans of pain and joy. These eyes show affection. They show fear, abandonment and confusion. They show compassion and understanding. There are souls behind these eyes.
People are always telling me they know their pet understands them. When you hear the expression “soulful eyes,” many people think of a beautiful animal face. One summer I had the honor of hosting 2 horses in my field. Have a staring contest with a horse for a few minutes, feel those eyes looking into your own soul, and you’ll know there are horses in heaven!
My friends and clients often ask me what I think they should tell their children when the family pet is dying. The conversation often revolves around logistics such as how the children should say goodbye, what age is appropriate to witness a euthanasia and so on.
Often, parents decide their children will get comfort if they say Frodo is going to heaven. Well, why should that comfort only be in the purview of children?
The One Thing I’ve Always Believed
Whatever crisis or comfort of faith I’m having at any stage of life, I have always believed one thing: Wherever I’m going when this earthly phase is over, my spirit will be reunited with Pepe, Chipper, Periwinkle, Champ, Mr. Chips and Lady.
This was the short list of pets I included at the end of my “God Blesses” at night after “Now I lay me down to sleep…” I only knew Pepe the poodle, Chipper the canary and Periwinkle the parakeet in my own young life.
The rest of my remembered pets had died long ago but were part of family lore, so I wanted to think of them in heaven every night before I went to sleep.
I think this was because that famous children’s prayer scared the bejesus out of me. “If I should die before I wake?” I took great comfort in knowing that Mr. Chips and Lady would be waiting to greet me at the pearly gates if I didn’t wake up for my next day in the second grade.
The Reward of Heaven
If the Word of God, as most theologians state in the Judeo-Christian tradition, declares that animals do not possess immortality, and thus do not make it to heaven, I guess I’m a heretic. I’m not sure where I heard this little story, but it stuck in my mind:
An elderly parishioner appeared at her pastor’s door. “Father, I’ve lost my dear Muffin, and I am grief-stricken. I understand that the church teaches that dogs don’t go to heaven.”
Father thought about this for a moment and said, “The reward of heaven is supposed to give you the ultimate happiness and peace, Mrs. Appleby, is it not?”
“Yes, Father, ultimate peace and happiness.”
“If you would not be happy in heaven without Muffin in it, Mrs. Appleby, I’m sure she will be there waiting for you.”
“Thank you, Father. I take it you know someone who has been there.”
Folks and theologians can argue all they want, but every pet person knows there can be only one answer: Animals deserve everything we deserve… and more.