Have you ever wondered what happens to your pets after they die? Do they go to heaven or some other kind of afterlife? These questions, often asked by pet owners who are grieving the loss of their beloved animals, are explored by Andrew Dean of the University of Sunderland in the article “The Rainbow Bridge: Imagining ‘Animal Heaven’” published in the Journal of Religious Experience.
It is common to imagine the afterlife, but there is little understanding about how our imagination functions as an otherworldly sense, or as a means to potentially experience supernatural realities. This ethnography spanned four years of research into the thoughts and concepts that arose in nine pet communities. All 179 participants were wrestling with their own beliefs about the afterlife for their beloved pets. Most of the participants were Christian. While a minority of the participants identified as Pagan, Dean argues that the Christian culture in which all those interviewed lived played a strong influence in their imaginings of the animal afterlife.
There is a growing popular belief in the Rainbow Bridge, a mythical bridge that connects heaven and earth and is said to be crossed by pets on their way to heaven. The Rainbow Bridge is often depicted as a peaceful and idyllic place where animals can play, eat, and be reunited with their owners. For some, animal heaven is a mirror of human heaven, a place of eternal bliss and a paradise where pets and their owners can be reunited. Others imagine animal heaven as a separate realm, where animals can live out their afterlife without the presence of humans. Imagination can sort through the ambiguities that arise while the participants attempt to resolve their lack of knowledge of the Rainbow Bridge and animal heaven.
Dean argues that, while the idea of animal heaven has not solidified into a specific theology, it provided comfort and solace to the grieving participants who found it difficult to come to terms with the death of their beloved animals. Animal heaven can also serve as a way for pet owners to continue their bond with their pets even after they have passed away, by imagining them in a happy and peaceful afterlife.
Dean concludes by reflecting on the importance of understanding and respecting different beliefs about animal heaven. While some people may find the idea of animal heaven silly or irrational, Dean argues that it is a deeply meaningful and personal belief for many pet owners. By respecting these beliefs, we can help to validate and support those who are grieving the loss of their pets.
Overall, “The Rainbow Bridge: Imagining ‘Animal Heaven’” provides insight into the concepts surrounding death and the afterlife for pet owners. Regardless of belief in the existence of animal heaven, the article encourages us to consider the emotional and spiritual significance of our relationships with animals, and the ways in which we remember and honor them after they have passed away.
Dean, A. (2022). The Rainbow Bridge: Imagining ‘Animal Heaven’. Journal for the Study of Religious Experience, 8 (1), 85-107. https://rerc-journal.tsd.ac.uk/index.php/religiousexp/article/view/122