By Dan Russo
Most of us will never have to dig a grave for a loved one. In the United States today, professionals usually handle that. The exception is when you lose a pet.
I experienced this recently when Archie, our family dog, died. He was the first dog we’d ever had, and you couldn’t have asked for a better one. He was a Japanese Chin-Dachshund mix with a sausage shaped body propped up on long legs, like stilts. His build made him lightning fast for a small dog. There was something awkward about his brown eyes. Oversized, they popped out of his head. When I looked into them as he sat listening intently to people talk, sometimes it seemed to me like he understood our conversations.
The day we had the burial service, I thought about the impact of his life, along with practical concerns that you’d only consider as a gravedigger. First, where to put the grave? I tried initially to dig next to a bush. Getting through the roots was tough. I later found out my family wanted him near the garage anyway, so I abandoned the first hole and started the second. This was ironic since Archie was constantly digging holes in the same yard to hide his bones, and then redigging to move them. Soon the question became how deep should I go? What about the width? When it came time to inter the urn in front of others, a miscalculation would be bad, so I had to get it right. Working up a sweat as I dug, I also thought about abstract questions: how do you mourn for a dog? What’s the appropriate amount of grief? Before we had a dog, I never truly understood what a bond with an animal meant.
Our faith teaches us to care for creation. Being around Archie, I realized how creation also cares for us, even teaches us. Archie’s unconditional devotion reflected God’s love. If you were sad, he would comfort you. If you didn’t pay attention to him or were away from home for a long while, he greeted you with the same joy every time. Like the father in the prodigal son parable, he would do more than tolerate your return to him; he would celebrate it. He taught us humility. (There’s no better remedy for pride then cleaning up after a dog.) He taught us the value of simplicity. Perhaps most importantly, he taught us how to live in the present, always making the most of every moment. For a dog, nothing matters except right now.
While covering his ashes with soil, I recalled the line from Genesis about how we’ll all return to dust. As unpleasant as digging the grave was, it turned out to be a blessing. It reminded me in a way as real as a shovel cutting through dirt that time is too precious to waste. The phrase “life is short” doesn’t feel like a cliché when you’re burying a friend with your own hands.
But what about the afterlife? Can dogs go to heaven? The Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn’t directly address the issue. However, theologians have debated for centuries about the nature of animals’ souls and what happens when they die. I like a theory I came across that in heaven God will provide what we need to be happy. The argument goes that if our happiness requires our pets’ presence, then it’ll be possible to see them there. Of course, this may not be true. I don’t know the answer to the question of dogs and heaven. I can tell you one thing for sure, though, if I get to heaven some day, the lessons Archie taught us and the love he gave will have helped me get there.
Pope Francis holds the leash of a St. Bernard during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican May 18, 2016. The dog was brought by a group from San Bernardino, Switzerland, as part of a campaign to have the region recognized by UNESCO. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)