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800 Words

All Dogs . . . .

October 22, 2006|Dan Neil

She was on her way to her sister-in-law's house, this woman on a plane, and she poured out her troubles to me as only total strangers will. Her sister-in-law had cancer; there was no recourse and not much time. Her next words amazed me. She told me her sister-in-law, an unmarried woman in her 50s, wanted to have her two healthy cocker spaniels euthanized after she died and then have their ashes commingled with her own "cremains." What did I think of that? Never mind me. Did anyone consult the dogs?

"How Egyptian of her," I said, smiling. Was there any point in telling her what I really thought? It was crazy on so many levels. Who would want such a reliquary in their house--"Yes, that's your dear aunt, who so loved her dogs she had them whacked posthumously."

And there's something bordering on perversity in the commingling itself. It's sort of the existential version of the old joke about the woman with the overly affectionate dog, the punch line of which is: "Well, actually, I was hoping you could clip his nails and do something about his breath."

As it happened, I too was thinking about animals and the afterlife, because our household, in the space of two months, lost three: my wife's beloved Chihuahua; my cat Flinch; and our canary, Harry, whom I found covered in ants on the bottom of the cage and whom I gave a sidearm send-off into the woods, returning him to nature.

Not so Flinch, who got full funereal honors. Two weeks later, when we retrieved Flinch's ashes from the vet, they were in a little blue velvet bag, with a gold embroidered inscription: "Until we meet again at the Rainbow Bridge." What's that about? Greenpeace? Gay pride? Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Cup car?

"The Rainbow Bridge," it turns out, refers to a poem, of sorts, about a kind of pet limbo, where departed animals wait for their owners "just this side of Heaven." Then, one day, the pets see their owners approaching the Rainbow Bridge: "His bright eyes are intent; his eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face," etc. Tennyson it's not.

As brokenhearted as I am over Flinch, I seriously doubt she will greet me in the afterlife, and she would certainly not sprint toward me. Perhaps she'd lick her butt.

"The Rainbow Bridge" is big medicine. I'd wager it's one of the most widely disseminated writings on the Internet. If you've ever put a pet down, chances are you've seen it. My wife, Tina, was a vet tech for many years. The staff at her old hospital send out letters of condolence on rainbow-themed stationery.

The Rainbow Bridge is also a kind of portmanteau metaphor for what might be called the pet loss industry. There are several dozen books ("Cold Noses at the Pearly Gates," "For Every Cat an Angel") and hundreds of websites devoted to pet bereavement. The site, for instance, is a "virtual memorial home" where the mourners of "fur babies" can set up online interments. The website will, for an annual charge of $25, maintain the virtual gravesite, changing the flowers and leaving fresh toys. The website is dedicated to FiFi, who "wrapped her tail around our hearts." Well, as long as people are keeping things in perspective.

Nearly everywhere I found the poem online, it was listed as being by "Anonymous." Yet, apparently, a Paul C. Dahm copyrighted the poem in the 1990s. I couldn't find him. Digging further, I did reach Wallace Sife, a Brooklyn psychologist and author who specializes in pet bereavement. He believes his one-page essay "Pet Heaven," written about 30 years ago for a dog club newsletter, may be the original text. He had forgotten about the essay until he found it online years later. "At first I was a little irked I had become anonymous," he said, "but then I didn't care."

Sife, 75, isn't surprised his bit of do-it-yourself theology caught on. For one thing, organized Western religion wasn't offering people a lot of comfort. "When I wrote my first book, I couldn't get any leaders of major religions to touch the subject of pet loss with a 10-foot pole," he said. Judeo-Christian tradition has had a "no pets" policy for some time--no surprise, considering the dearth of house cats in the Bible.

Not to mention the Creationist implications. If we grant that animals have souls, the difference between man and beast becomes purely one of degree, not kind, and that puts us on the slippery slope toward Evolution. "Any fundamental religion will not accept the concept of pets having souls," Sife says.

That's sort of a fun thought. Thanks to Sife, our pets can enter the Kingdom of Heaven across the Rainbow Bridge, while Darwin gets in through the pet door.

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