All knowledge, the totality of all questions and answers, is contained in the dog.
While this is a sweeping statement, it helped unravel my topic – on animals and death, grief and mourning – for a recent conference on “Dogs in Southern African Literatures”.
In Marlene van Niekerk’s novel “Triomf” (1994) the Benade family want to deal with their grief following the death of the beloved dog Gerty. The Benade family buries her in the backyard and Mol decides to compose a tombstone for her. She writes:
Here lies Gerty Benade. Mother of Toby Benade/and sweetheart dog of Mol ditto.
She then writes, “Wow she’s in dog heaven” and Treppie contributes the final line “Where the dogs are seven eleven” – signifying lucky numbers in the game of dice.
Pop’s dream of dead dogs as angelic beings and Mol’s reference to “dog heaven” suggest there is belief that like their human counterparts, dogs also go to heaven and become angels as a reward for their good conduct on earth.
In many cultures and religions dogs are more than protection and security. They are also company and companions. In some instances the canines are so close to their humans that people wonder about their animals’ after lives. So, do real life dogs actually go to heaven?
More about love
In her essay film “Heart of a Dog” (2015) American avant garde performer Laurie Anderson deals with the death in 2011 of her beloved Lolabelle, a rat terrier adopted by Anderson and her husband, the singer Lou Reed. In the film Anderson also tries to come to terms with the deaths of her mother and Reed in 2013. According to Anderson dealing with these deaths taught her more about love than anything else.
Lolabelle was deprived of her encounters with others in their New York neighbourhood when she became blind and was afraid to move forward into the dark. Anderson got her a trainer who decided first that Lolabelle should literally paint and then actually learn to play the piano.
Initially I thought Anderson was very anthromorphic in her view on dogs when she describes Lolabelle as empathetic, playing the piano, painting pictures and questioning the games played with her.
When asked by film critic Jonathan Romney whether Lolabelle meant more to her than being merely a pet, Anderson remarked:
It’s a film about empathy. Lolabelle was a character that was almost pure empathy, so I tried to express that as well as I could.
One could argue that Lolabelle, like the fictitious “Gerty” in “Triomf”, acts as a consoler to Anderson. No wonder film critic Ty Burr calls the film,
a unique, exceptionally touching cinematic tone-poem on the subject of mourning.
Afterlife for dogs
Ensuing from this one could ask: do dogs go to heaven or is there an afterlife for dogs? And as a Buddhist, what does Anderson believe? Her mourning for Lolabelle is grounded in her Buddhist beliefs and there is a long section devoted to the “bardo”, the Buddhist concept of the waiting period between a person’s lives. The spirit of the deceased spends 49 days in the bardo, as is mentioned in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
And other belief systems? There are varied views even within different faith groups. Recently Pope Francis told a young boy whose dog has died that paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.
Islam offers no clear answer. In Islam all souls are eternal, including those of animals. But in order to get to heaven, or Jannah, beings must be judged by God on Judgement Day, and some Muslim scholars say animals are not judged as humans are.
Buddhism also sees animals as sentient beings like humans, and says that humans can be reborn as animals and animals can be reborn as humans. So given that, the question of whether or not animals can go to heaven doesn’t really apply to Buddhists. Humans and animals are all interconnected.
Hinduism also outlines a type of reincarnation, in which a being’s eternal soul, or jiva, is reborn on a different plane after death, continuing until the soul is liberated (moksha).
In popular culture, the movie “All dogs go to heaven” (1989) focuses on “Charlie B Barkin” a German shepherd dog who is killed by “Carface Caruthers” a violent, sadistic mixed American Pit Bull Terrier/Bulldog gangster. This film was followed by a sequel in 1996. Assessing the movies Hillary Busis (2014) describes it as,
a horrifying phantasmagoria of murder, demons, drinking, gambling, hellfire, and blue eyeshadow.
Animals (and then dogs in particular) go to heaven as is suggested by the title of the film. However, Christian scholars are quick to remark that the only ticket to heaven and salvation is having a soul and putting that soul into serving some or other higher being. But as Wesley Smith (2012) put it in Christian Today:
We have come a long way since Descartes claimed that animals are mere automatons without the capacity for pleasure or pain. We now know the contrary is true: They experience. They suffer. They grieve. They love.
Anderson situates herself as the narrator in “Heart of a Dog” right from the start and intersperses the tale of Lolabelle with stories about her own childhood and more current events such as the 9/11 terror attacks.
The autobiographical nature of her text is foregrounded throughout in an attempt by the artist to deal with Lolabelle’s sickness, pain and death. Anderson echoes several Buddhist teachings on mourning: crying is forbidden because crying is confusing to the dead. One wants to summon the dead back by weeping, even though it is impossible to do so. One should also feel sad without being sad.
Flying between heaven and earth
So to return to my initial question: do dogs go to heaven? My contention is that it primarily depends on your belief system but most religions agree that the sentient animals around us also belong in an after death Shangri La or utopia. It suspends our search for certainties and meaning; and in the metaphor of the film, it is our attempt to confuse the dead within the bardo.
We want to call them back. We wish they could be like “Charlie B Barkin” who could fly back and forth between heaven and earth. Or, we want them to be dog angels like Triomf’s “Toby” and “Gerty” who will once again be our companion animals in the otherworld.
The tale of Laurie and Lolabelle is a guideline to grief, a way to deal with death. It is Anderson’s own book of the dead. It dissolves the binary between human and animal but it also acts – albeit indirectly perhaps – as a device to repress grief.