There’s nothing simple about the death of a loved pet: when to let go, how to even approach making that decision, how to grieve, how to talk about our grief. Another and potentially quite touchy piece of that awful puzzle is the question of animals’ “soul” and place in the “hereafter,” and the complexities of balancing one’s own beliefs with the cultural and religious doctrines in which we were raised.

More than half the world’s humans self-identify with one of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), all of which preach that nonhumans have no place in whatever afterlife is part of their doctrine. At their extremes, some faiths teach that nonhuman animals have no feelings, experience no pain or fear or joy, and accordingly deserve no more rights than simple machinery. Today, fortunately, such extreme views are rare, at least when it comes to the animals we welcome as members of our families. But the concept of “life after death,” of a heaven, is still most often conceived (assuming one believes in an afterlife) as a territory exclusively welcoming of us humans. That’s not universal among the world’s religions, but not much is. For example, the Buddhist view is that nonhuman animals’ essence survive death just as humans’ do; that all creatures are sentient, capable of experiencing pain and joy, and that all have minds or souls beyond the physical tissue which makes up a body and brain.

Religion, like politics, can be a dangerous subject. That said, for me, the sense of real wonder I enjoy when I hike a forest or a desert is something far richer than anything I’ve felt in a synagogue or church, and I am incapable of imagining an abode of gods and angels and good people someplace up above, or flames and pitchforks and eternal damnation below. But I do believe, firmly, that there’s more going on than I can understand. I believe that whatever love is, it is something far more than chemistry and biology. That it survives. And that the love I feel for a few humans, along with the love I feel for my animals, and the love that I experience back from all those, does not end when they or I am gone.

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