Speculation Mounts on What Awaits Pets in the AfterlifeSpeculation Mounts on What Awaits Pets in the Afterlife

By Amy Green

(UMCom) -- Do dogs really go to heaven?

No longer a quaint expression, the question is generating serious debate as religious leaders and theologians respond to America’s growing devotion to their pets with books, Web sites and church services where animals are blessed and their deaths mourned.

“I think putting animals in heaven is one of the best ways of thinking about heaven,” says Stephen H. Webb, professor of religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., and author of On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals. “For too many people, heaven is about a white light or your disembodied soul floating up to the sky. ... What God has created, God will recreate in the end, and that includes animals.”

Animals’ spirituality and their afterlife has emerged in public debate thanks in part to animal rights activists and church leaders who see a unique opportunity in ministering to a family -- especially children -- grieving a beloved dog or cat. The loss often is a child’s first experience with death. Church leaders increasingly are asked to pray for pets and preside over their burials in the family backyard. Many families are burying pets in elaborate caskets in pet cemeteries or keeping their ashes at home in urns.

Webb is a member of a national study group exploring animals’ spirituality established by the American Academy of Religion, an organization of theologians and scholars. The United Methodist Church and many other denominations have picked up the Roman Catholic practice of blessing animals, which grew out of St. Francis of Assissi’s ministry. Some denominations offer funerals. Hallmark now offers pet sympathy cards. 

The Rev. Grayson Atha of King Avenue United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio, holds a service each August to bless pets, usually in a park. This year, weather forced the service into the sanctuary, where he blessed some 70 dogs, cats, gerbils and turtles. 

“People bring all kinds of animals, and we recognize they are part of God’s creation,” he says.

Atha also ministers to families mourning a pet and has offered a vase for parishioners to leave a flower in remembrance of a deceased pet. He points to the care God takes with all his creation in the book of Genesis and in Isaiah 11:6-9, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; ... They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Atha says a pet’s death is “an open door to deal with a variety of things with that person. ... For many people, pets are extremely important in their lives.”

Christ United Methodist Church in Bethel Park, Pa., offers Hearts & Paws, a ministry that blesses pets and supports parishioners mourning a pet, among other things. The church in June held an animal fair with speakers and vendors such as the Humane Society.

“We thought there was a need to acknowledge God’s creation a little bit more than Methodists normally do,” says Sue Irwin, director of the church's children's ministries.

The church’s services where pets are blessed draw a surprisingly diverse group, she says, children and the elderly who have treated their dogs and cats as family members for years. When these pets pass away, their owners sometimes experience a level of grief that can be hard to fathom, she says.

“They need to talk, and they need to know that we understand the grieving process that they're going through,” Irwin says.

The Bible doesn’t offer definitive evidence, but Joe Hirsch believes he’ll see the 20 cats and three dogs he has rescued with his wife in heaven. The real estate salesman who says his suburban home “feels like a farm” is chairman of Christ United Methodist Church's Heart & Paws, a ministry he believes has met an important need in his congregation.

“My feeling is that for many people, their pets are almost like their children,” he says. “There's a special connection, and my own personal opinion is that there’s a spiritual connection, and when you lose your pet, it’s a very difficult experience.”

What awaits these pets in the afterlife? Hirsch has an easy answer.

“If you ever question whether or not there's a soul to an animal, just look in the eyes of a cat or dog,” he says. “I really believe that animals that die, just as every person that dies, goes to heaven and adds grace to heaven.”

Amy Green is a freelance journalist based in Nashville, Tenn. Her writing credits include The Boston Globe and Christianity Today.

This feature was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.

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