A member of our church died and was cremated and then had her ashes blended with the ashes of her dog that had died and was cremated a year earlier. Another member of our church brought his five year old son to see me because the boy had told him that, “more than anything in the world” he wanted to be dead so that he could be with his dog.
These were not my first or only encounters with the deeply spiritual relationship many people have with their pets. For many adults, losing a pet is like losing a young child. For many children, losing a pet is their first experience with death and grief. And while some may proclaim that losing a young child is far more profound a grief than losing a pet — I, as one who have lost both pet and young child — proclaim that loss is loss, grief is grief, and love is love. You would not believe how many grief-stricken adults and children, some of whom I do not personally know but who are aware that I am the pastor of a church; have pulled me aside in public places and asked, often with tears in their eyes, “Are there pets in heaven?”
Without commenting on whether there is a literal “place” called heaven or not; and without citing the Bible or other documents for opinions on the question ~ my answer then as now is: What kind of place could be called “heaven” without pets? But these numerous encounters did cause me to further ponder the question while not in the presence of ashen-face, grief-stricken persons in the throes of the loss of a non-human loved one from whom they fear they will be separated for eternity.
I found that in Genesis 1: 20-25, God created the living creatures of the sea, sky and ground before God created humankind. Six chapters later, in Genesis 7:15, we hear that, “Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark.” The only standard that was necessary to gain admission to the ark was to have “the breath of life”. Noah did not require human intelligence, language skills or any other standard to gain admittance to the ark of salvation. All living creatures from the very dawn of creation were utterly and completely welcome on the ark, including Noah’s family and, one can only assume, Noah’s pets.
In Job 32:8 we hear, “But it is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding.” And so it is that God breathed life into us and we were granted human understanding. And it is the ability to “understand” that separates us from other living, breathing creatures. Pets may lack the ability to reason and to “understand” in the same way as humans. But that, perhaps, only means that they connect differently with God than we do: not better, not worse, just differently.
Pets often seem more spiritually in tune with life than humans are. Unlike humans, pets do not harm the spirit of each other. Have you ever had your heart broken, and your pet stayed by your side when your human loved one fled? Did you know that many hospices allow cats to live there and freely roam from room to room? Pets have an uncanny spiritual connection with the sick and dying. In one hospice in Florida, a nurse told me that cats will frequently sleep near the next person to die. The cat remains close to the one soon to transition out of earthly existence. Visitation dogs are often brought to memory loss units in hospitals and nursing homes. The mere presence of such dogs often causes patients to rouse from their apparent stupors and to interact with the dog in ways that the patients do not otherwise interact, even with their human caregivers and families.
In the early 1200’s, St. Francis of Assisi wrote, “God wishes other creatures besides humans to be included in the plan of salvation.” And in the 1970’s, Pope Paul VI said, “One day we will see our pets in the eternity of Christ.”
Knowing of scriptural references to the possibility of pets in heaven is a kind of consolation. But a far deeper conviction comes to me because I first learned how to love through my first pet. What kind of heaven would heaven be if there were no pets? For me, it would be like a heaven where there are limits on love. And such a heaven I cannot begin to imagine. I am confident that as we approach the gates of heaven; our departed pets will be there, staring through those gates until our reunion is complete. There are a few relatives of mine I was not crazy about who are now departed and I wonder what our reunion will be like… but as for a reunion with my departed pets? I can hardly wait!!!
On September 11th, during our 10:00 service, we will host “The Blessing of the Departed Pets.” Adult and children are invited to bring a photo of their departed pet that will be posted on easels. They will then be invited to come forth and recite the name of their departed pet for all to hear, receive a blessing, light a candle in their pet’s honor, and return to their seat. Children may remain with their caregivers or go with other children for Sunday school activities that will welcome all faith traditions. The title of the message delivered at the service is: “Are There Pets in Heaven?” An Ice Cream Social follows the service. This event, like the love of God for all of creation, is free of charge.
Dwight Lee Wolter is the author of many books and the pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue on Long Island, New York. He blogs at dwightleewolter.com