The question of whether pets go to heaven seems these days to be getting ever greater attention, almost as much as in long ago days the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin. Just now (January 17, 2115) the New York Times has dedicated a column by Mark Oppenheimer to it, under the headline “From Seminary to Cemetery, Fascination Persists Over Pets and the Afterlife.”
It is at least as troubling to pet owners as the matter of who designed the Emperor’s new clothes is to the rest of us. My guess is Ralph Lauren, specialist in lost causes, who once informed New York magazine that he could produce several hundred signatures to a demand for my dismissal as drama critic.
To be sure, since there is no heaven even for humans (who admittedly are less deserving of one than, say, Lassie or Mehitabel, if there were such a place), the question is a fairly academical one. There is not even a word for going to it in English—as in the German Himmelfahrt—other than “ascension,” which, to me, rather suggests elevators, and seems un worthy of a pious quadruped. So why not grant afterlife to a deserving pooch or tabby in, say, a comfy black hole, the kind that, according to Professor Stanley Brandes of Berkeley is memorialized on actual tombstones with such epitaphs as “Until We Meet in Heaven” or, for a boxer aptly named Champ, “We Pray That We Will Meet Again.”
Since pet owners are given to conversing with their dogs and cats, how easy it would be for them to say, “I’m reserving a spot for you in Heaven,” to the great relief of either the speaker or hearer, the two- or four-foot animal. This would guarantee for Spot an endlessly chewable bone, and for Kitty, an inexhaustible saucer of milk.
Quite rightly Oppenheimer observes that “our sense of spiritual kinship is already latent in the bootees and little sweaters we buy our pets”—the cats, bless them, will have none of such paraphernalia—so why should tiny passports to Paradise give pause to booteed paws? I recall Alexander Pope’s couplet for the collar of the Prince of Wales’s pet, ‘I am His Highness’s dog at Kew,/ Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?” If so literate, why couldn’t loyal Fido share the Marine Corps’s motto, Semper Fidelis?
And now good news: the present inclusionist pope has said, “Paradise is open to all God’s creatures.” If so, does that include mosquitoes, cockroaches, tarantulas? Also bedbugs, with which our apartment has been recently infected and took the devil of a time to be gotten rid of. The way those pests performed their molestations; I am sure the male ones earned their 72 virgin females in bedbug heaven.
The Times article further informed us, “’Today there are nearly 600 functioning pet cemeteries in the United States,’” as Amy Defibaugh, a Temple University graduate student, read out from her paper at the recent American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego. Entitled as the paper was—“Toward the Weeping Willow: An Examination of the Dying and Death of Companion Animals”-- it sounds to me like a Ph.D. thesis in the University’s putative Animal Studies Department, although I cannot quite understand the bit about the Weeping Willow: does it mourn the decrease of dogs to bestow their fertilizing urine on its trunk?
So too it was comforting to gather that religion, so useful for the spiritual peace of humans, extends its beneficence to pets. We read in the Times that a cat named Corky lies beneath a gravestone with a Star of David, while “a dog named Sushi has two Stars of David symmetrically placed at the top of his gravestone, on which there is also Hebrew lettering that reads Shalom.” On the headstone of a cat named Sheebah one reads that she “went to Heaven on Yom Kippur Day.” I am not sure whether these Jewish epitaphs are cited as a mark of philo- or anti-Semitism, but I certainly hope that other religions will duly follow suit.
It strikes me as unfair for a dog no to get his 72 virgin bitches in Paradise, or that the chaster tomcats are not granted 72 virgin pussies. Most laudable is Nancy Tillman’s book, “The Heaven of Animals,” in which she assured grieving pet owners that “when dogs go to heaven, they’re welcomed by name (surely Rover and Bowser are as good as Gabriel and Raphael), and angels know every dog’s favorite games.” I can just hear an encouraging “How about some fetch, Fido?” in a melodious, angelic voice, which should make any dog feel right at home. Wings, by the way, if issued to dogs, should make fetching ever so much easier.
Ms. Tillman, a nondenominational Christian in Portland, Oregon, comments about her dog’s and cat’s rapt, faraway gazes, “What a lovely thought if they see heaven,” rather than, I suppose, the next helping of Purina. Even more encouraging is Cynthia Rylant, author of the egalitarian “Dog Heaven” and “Cat Heaven” lest she be accused of partiality. In the former, she avers that “God has a sense of humor, so He makes His biscuits in funny shapes for his dogs. There are kitty-cat biscuits and squirrel biscuits.” Gratifyingly, they must feel that they are symbolically consuming their traditional victims, cats and squirrels.
The best news that the quizzically named grad student, Ms. Defibaugh, conveys to us in her paper, that “many funeral homes have extended their services to companion animals for memorials and religious services” and that “Some human cemeteries are now allowing companion animal burial.” I like her term “companion animal” for pets; it somehow makes it sound as if those canines and felines had freely adopted their bipeds as partners. And perhaps in a way they have. But what about those Weeping Willows?