I thought something was on fire when I first saw it. A plume of black smoke rising against a backdrop of lowering, sullen clouds in a late winter sky. Then I remembered that there’s a pet crematorium in that part of town. I was witnessing the end, the smudged spirit of someone’s departed companion. It made me reflective. We currently have no pets. (We can barely afford keeping ourselves going without adding another mouth to feed.) Having grown up with a variety of animals–dogs, cats, birds, fish, turtles, guinea pigs—and having kept fish, a bird, and a couple hermit crabs for our daughter, I know the connections we make with our animal kin. They teach children about death. And they have the capacity to make all of us reflect on what it means to be alive.
I’ve buried my share of pets, but I have no idea what happened to the larger ones. The cats. The dogs. It was pretty obvious when a dog died. The cats, which were outside pets, tended simply to disappear. There were no dog grave markers and I still have no clue what the grown ups did with the carcasses. I once visited a pet cemetery; it was an oddly moving place. Although we’re taught theologically that animals don’t have souls, it feels like part of ours dies when they go. That strange teaching is courtesy of the Bible and it manages to hold sway in both science and religion. And so another puff of black smoke rises from down the block.
Religion has a tremendous influence on us, whether we’re personally religious or not. Since humans have always eaten animals, it’s likely that the earliest religions helped to assuage the guilt of killing something that so obviously has feelings and thoughts and could, in other circumstances, have been us. When monotheism came in there was a great reduction in souls. Humans alone made in God’s image learned to dominate other animals. Today we have feedlots that are animal Hells while we pat Fido on the head and mourn his passing. I somehow doubt that we’ll ever find ourselves back in the natural world. We’ll likely go extinct before that happens. Until that day, however, some of our saddest memories will be from when our beloved companions pre-decease us. You can never be certain which way your thoughts might turn when lowering, sullen clouds fill a late winter sky.