Animals and the Afterlife

My friend’s beloved and aged dog died not long ago. My friend was in a state of grief and there I sat helpless to comfort her—for what can assuage the loss of a dog, or cat, a horse, mouse, parrot, or pet snake? Our animal relationships are pregnant with meaning and almost as profound as the loss of a child. Where do our animals go when they die?

I remember when Puck, my Corgi died. For weeks afterwards I could hear the click of his nails on the bare wood floors, as if he were still following me through the house.  I missed him with a physical ache, the way he’d throw himself at the front door each noon to protest the mail that attacked through the brass slot (his ferocity succeeded, for didn’t the invasion retreat before his assault, only to return next day?).  How could such life-force energy just disappear?

The fact that I could hear my dog’s nails on the floor disturbed me. Was it my imagination, forged in the fires of grief? And how was it that after two or three weeks it faded out and stopped?

They say that only humans have self-reflective consciousness, and therefore (according to Church tradition) only people have souls and enter Afterlife.  Nonetheless, a mummified cat from around 9500 BCE attests to the human longing for a pet to reach the next Life. The ancients entombed along with pets — food, maidens, soldiers, oxen and furniture for the next life. Right up to the Sixth Century ACE the rapacious Viking marauders took with them on their final journey a favorite dog or horse (not to mention the human sacrifice of the serving girl):  all killed and burned up with him on the flaming funeral ship.

But these traditions speak more to the efforts of the dying to hold onto the world and to those creatures that they loved than to the souls of animals.

Here are our main concerns:  Will we meet them in the Afterlife? Do they reincarnate as the Hindu/Buddhist traditions assert into “higher” life-forms? Furthermore, what is the soul, that quality which G. B. Shaw called the “life-force?”

I once asked my guru, “Where does the soul reside in us?”  He answered that the soul is, like water in a sponge, permeating every cell; for the soul or spirit, he said, is oneself.   I’ve come to believe that the soul is another word for love. And love transcends the very boundaries of death.

But where does it go when we die?

Once I was giving a talk on angels in Colorado, when a woman asked:  “Do dogs become angels when they die?” Then she told the following story:

She’d had a beautiful Shetland Sheep Dog in Idaho. It wore a red bandana round its neck, a hippie dog. When it died, she fell into a depression– inconsolable. She finally withdrew to a retreat center on the top of a mountain in New Mexico, where she spent her days reading, praying, walking and recovering from her loss.

One day she was hiking in the high mountains when a thunderstorm broke overhead. Lightning flashed. She knew she was in danger. Some 55 people a year are killed by lightning in the U.S. and those deaths are most prevalent in the high mountains. The woman had a poor sense of direction, and while hurrying to reach the safety of the retreat, she got lost. She was scared. Suddenly she heard a bark. She looked up. Through the rain she saw a Shetland Sheep dog with a red bandana around its neck, running back and forth ahead of her. When she took a step toward it, the dog ran down a path. If she hesitated, it came back, barking, inviting her to follow. As it ran down the slope ahead of her, she saw the dog’s plumy tail waving in great circles, like a pinwheel, just as her dog’s used to do. The dog led her to her own cabin at the retreat, turned and ran away.

Was it her dog? Was it an angel?

“That’s all an angel is,” wrote Meister Eckhart in the 13th century, “an idea of God.”  And what is God—this word we throw around so casually and that so many reject and ridicule rebelliously? What is “god” but a word for this wild, mysterious, invisible, ineffable, unknowable and unfathomable energy of Love?

I have been privileged to know one perfect loving dog, one perfect cat, and now an exceptional horse, each one the full expression of unflinching love. I think our animals are angels, earth-angels, pointing out for us the steadfast path of love, loyalty, optimism, faith, joy, hope. They teach us everything important about life.

And when we grieve their deaths, it is love that we’re expressing in silent psalmody—our grief being a poem proportionate to our love.


13 thoughts on “Animals and the Afterlife

  1. My dog died right after Thanksgiving. Several times I have thought I heard his toenails on the floor since then, but it could be the pipes or something. But yesterday I heard him shake. A really vigorous shake that would make hair fly all over the place. I hope we will see our pets in heaven.

  2. Sophy as usual you strike a comforting chord and tell what many of us feel to be the irrefutable truth, supported by wonderful examples and stories. When it comes to animals I know you do, nowhere better than in your sentence, “They teach us everything important about life….”

  3. I make a deal with my beloved 4-legged companions: they’re coming to meet me first when I change worlds. It made my mother laugh and she wondered where she could be in this welcome committee. I assured her I wanted her to be part of it, but first, a sweet embrace with my 4-legged’s. I have held many of these loves of my life as their hearts faded, and will accompany more, always with the assurance of my love and the reminder of our plan to meet again…

  4. I’ve been privy to countless stories of after death communications between people and their pets who have transitioned. I assure you that our pets not only have souls, but that our relationships and exchange of love continue after their transition. You can find beautifully moving and profound accounts of such things in “Animals and the Afterlife” by Kim Sheridan. Hearing toenails is definitely a form of communication — as are rainbows, butterflies, certain dreams, objects moving, sensing a presence, feeling a jump on the bed, and so much more!

  5. Thank-you Sophy, for this timely piece. One of our 4 cats has been missing for 2+ weeks and I called her world peace Kaylee. Officially she was Kaylee, but as you so beautifully said, she was that perfect cat of unflinching love. I know she is OK, having connected with her. It is the not being able to physically be with her, pet her fur and see her beautiful eyes that is so painful. Much Love to you and the beautiful horse! I too am a horse person.

  6. Sophy, I am sending your beautiful musings on to my niece, Sarah, whose dear cat Lily has just died at age 17. I think they will be a comfort to her.

    Not long ago I read an account of the near-death experience of Bryce Bond (now actually passed on) who was exuberantly greeted in the course of his journey by a beloved dog he had owned years before:

    “I hear a bark, and racing toward me is a dog I once had, a black poodle named Pepe. When I see him, I feel an emotional floodgate open. Tears fill my eyes. He jumps into my arms, licking my face. As I hold him, he is real, more real than I had ever experienced him. I can smell him, feel him, hear his breathing, and sense his great joy at being with me again.”

    Before Bond is sent back to his physical life he is greeted by other dogs, all racing joyously to meet him . . .

  7. Thank you Sohpy for sharing these wonderful ideas. I enjoyed this post greatly. I think when we die we will become animals. I have a feeling that I knew my cat in another life. I think when animals die, they become trees and flowers. These ideas make more passionate about caring for animals and protecting the trees. We are all connected.

    • I think if we are lucky we become animals. I hate to think that animals become humans. I want to come back as a TREE.
      Did I tell you I saw a fantasticly beautiful report on TV PBS about the marshes of Iraq. Were you involved? Sophy

  8. Thanks . I lost Leechi on 4th sep 2012. I also have lost my will to live. It has been more than 4 months but tears have not stopped. But I have not felt her presense anywhere. Why is it so? Didnt she love me?

  9. My very special Bernese Dog, Otto, after he passed just a few hours later i heard him come running back to me. I didn’t see anything but it was clearly apparent that i could hear his strong panting and legs coming right back to me. I feel that he is beside me each and every day. I strongly believe in angels and woke up one morning to them telling me “Do not look for him around you, yet look for him to be within you”. And to this day he is within me giving me strength and stamina and love to continue on with my life’s work here on earth .. .. . .<3!

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