What Happens When A Pet Dies (and other theological / philosophical reflections)

As part of my ongoing reflections from my accident, surgery, hospitalization, and recovery, I shared a few reflections on “Postcards From the Edge” and waxed philosophical in thoughts about life, death, the hereafter, the intermediate state, and the resurrection. I cited a story I read on Facebook, posted by a now-anonymous friend – for the life of me, I can’t remember who, but if it is you, please don’t be offended – about a young girl whose dog passes away. Now this is not me being cynical as I have both a young daughter and an aging dog:

*daughter not included

so I truthfully enjoyed this story… UNTIL the last part:

Our 14-year-old dog Abbey died last month. The day after she passed away my 4-year-old daughter Meredith was crying and talking about how much she missed Abbey. She asked if we could write a letter to God so that when Abbey got to heaven, God would recognize her… she dictated these words:

Dear God, Will you please take care of my dog? She died yesterday and is with you in heaven. I miss her very much. I am happy that you let me have her as my dog even though she got sick. I hope you will play with her. She likes to swim and play with balls. I am sending a picture of her so when you see her you will know that she is my dog. I really miss her. Love, Meredith

We put the letter in an envelope with a picture of Abbey and Meredith and addressed it to God/Heaven. We put our return address on it. Then Meredith pasted several stamps on the front of the envelope because she said it would take lots of stamps to get the letter all the way to heaven. That afternoon she dropped it into the letter box at the post office. Yesterday, there was a package wrapped in gold paper on our front porch addressed, ‘To Meredith’ in an unfamiliar hand. Meredith opened it. Inside was a book by Mr. Rogers called, ‘When a Pet Dies.’ Taped to the inside front cover was the letter we had written to God in its opened envelope. On the opposite page was the picture of Abbey & Meredith and this note:

Dear Meredith, Abbey arrived safely in heaven. Having the picture was a big help and I recognized her right away. Abbey isn’t sick anymore. Her spirit is here with me just like it stays in your heart. Abbey loved being your dog. Since we don’t need our bodies in heaven, I don’t have any pockets to keep your picture in so I am sending it back to you in this little book for you to keep and have something to remember Abbey by. Thank you for the beautiful letter and remember that I love you very much. By the way, I’m easy to find. I am wherever there is love. Love, God

As you can guess by my formatting, it’s this passing comment about how “we don’t need our bodies in heaven” that rubs me wrong in all the right places, this unthinking gaffe that still somehow utterly and deliberately bleeds a disdain for all things material, and reflects the modern pop-religio capitulation to the ancient Greek gnostic (and Platonic) philosophy – without giving it nary a thought. But this is serious folks – we who call ourselves Christian are seriously out of step with historic Christian thought if we believe in the end that “we don’t need our bodies in heaven.”

So while this isn’t a post about “Do all dogs go to heaven?” (sorry), it is indeed a post about our bodies & creation & the material world – that it isn’t something meant to be sloughed off like a tiresome old costume that stinks from wearing it too long (“it’s the smell” as agent Smith would assert, wiping the stank off Morpheus’ brow), but that precisely is what God is in the business of: redeeming and restoring stanky creation and smelly bodies. In other words, God’s agenda for our bodies and creation is not to get us out of this material world, but rather to redeem it with all of its peccadilloes and discrepancies.

I dunno… Plato was preeetttty revolutionary. But I’m willing to wager this gives Plato a run for his money.

In the end I deeply regret that the last two weeks’ talks on personal eschatology crafted from the confines of my hospital bed are forever lost to the ages… due to technical recording issues. Perhaps I will re-preach them someday. Until then – have at it. I’ve had questions so far about my criticism of cremation, and concerns about where we go when we die pre-resurrection. For me this discussion is my bread-and-butter. Well not really. But it can change how you see everything.


Do we need our bodies in heaven? Or is “spirit” all that matters?

Published by Wayne Park

Asian-American clergyman thinking about issues of faith, place, race and culture-making in the vast city of Houston, TX

4 thoughts on “What Happens When A Pet Dies (and other theological / philosophical reflections)

  1. 1) There’s more to Greek philosophy than Plato. Aristotle is most helpful in discussing incarnation, as Thomas Aquinas shows us.

    2) I have reservations about cremation as well, Wayne. It was the practice of pagans, and now it is the practice of people who don’t want tospend /or don’t have the money for burial. Granted, the funeral industry made burial a more complicated and expensive proposition, but still. For Christians, death should be an unparalleled occasion for witness to Christ’s resurrection. Cremation makes a less powerful statement, IMO. By “disposing” of the body, reducing it to ashes, and letting those ashes be scattered or on display in an urn on the mantel we tend to further the gnostic view.

    My dad’s family was Catholic. I loved going to Catholic funerals, where the deceased in his or her casket was brought in to be part of the funeral mass, as a final act of worship before burial. And I loved that some churches have old graveyards on their property. Talk about being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses!

    Catholics aren’t supposed to do eulogies. I think that might not be a bad idea. Last Friday I attended a Presbyterian memorial service that went on for THREE HOURS. We spent a total of one hour singing and being sung to; 45 minutes listening to sermon and prayers, and the rest was was slide show, formal eulogy, and informal eulogies from the congregation. In the end the longest focus of our time was spent not on Jesus but on the deceased. That struck me as wrong.

    P.S. Here is an interesting link: http://www.fisheaters.com/funerals.html

  2. My thoughts precisely; to spend the bulk of the time focusing on the deceased may be meaningful, but the prime teaching time about the Hope of our resurrection is lost; I mean, what else do we have to hope for? Not heaven, but Christ himself…

    per Aristotle & Aquinas; alas – my theological / philosophical education was cut short @ 90 credits (probably a good thing :)… Right when we were getting into Kant too. I always wish I could spend more time in classical learning… perhaps I should take a class with you and Steve :)

    and the fisheaters link: that’s really interesting (beautiful painting BTW) – the citation at the top – 1 Cor 15 – was my working text last Sunday. I don’t ever think I can fully communicate the complexity of Paul’s thought here – but I definitely think it conveys this high view of the body, hintings at an intermediate state (? – “blink of an eye”) and the hope of physical – not just spiritual – resurrection.

  3. Several years ago a Muslim woman came to faith in our congregation. She was dying of cancer. Her Muslim-American husband was quite unusual in permitting her to be baptized, and attend worship. We became close friends, and I was there the night she died.

    Her mother had come from Iran and spent the last couple of months of A.’s life with her. It is the custom of Muslim women to wash the deceased’s body; and when A. died, her husband asked if I would help A’s mother. I am so thankful now to have had that honor! I didn’t quite know what to do, but the mortuary was wonderful. They gave us us a low lit room, with basins of warm water and lots of towels, and laid A out on a table.

    I had seen my father and mother, embalmed in their caskets, but I had never seen a corpse. A’s body had wasted away to skin and bones. Even so, A’s face had always been beautiful, but in death she looked like Nefertiti. We gently bathed and dressed her; then her mother prayed to Allah, and I prayed to Jesus. A. was given a Christian burial, with Steve presiding at the small graveside service.

    Now I know some of what it must have been like for the women who cared for Jesus’ body after His crucifixion. Holy Week has taken on a whole new meaning for me. And now I have an idea of what it will mean to see A. breathing, and pink and warm, and chasing after her son. I look forward to being able to hug her once more. Bodies matter. A Resurrection has occurred that is the promise of things to come.


  4. Amen. So come quickly, Lord Jesus.
    what a beautiful picture of sensitive pastoral care, and a deep tending to of the body. I am always struck by the images of women caring for the Deceased, anointing, preparation, and burial. Thanks Beth, for this beautiful story.

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