Do all dogs go to heaven? Pet owners increasingly think so, says study

Analysis of pet cemeteries in Newcastle and London over 100 years shows increase in proportion of graves referencing immortality

Do all dogs go to heaven? Pet owners increasingly think so, says study

The definition of dog heaven is straightforward enough: bottomless biscuits, walks on demand, squirrels you can actually catch.

Whether it exists is a thornier question. But according to a new study, owners of all kinds of domestic animals have become more likely to believe in a pet afterlife – and have used gravestones and memorials to express their faith that they will one day be reunited.

A new analysis published in the journal Antiquity, examining the history of pet cemeteries in Newcastle and London over 100 years from 1881, found an increase in the proportion of graves that reference the animals’ immortal souls. “Few 19th-century gravestones reference an afterlife, although some may ‘hope’ to see their loved ones again,” said Dr Eric Tourigny, author of the study, who looked at more than 1,000 animal headstones. “By the mid-20th century, a greater proportion of animal gravestones suggest owners were awaiting a reunion in the afterlife.” Images of gravestones included in the paper show simple 19th-century references to “Topsey, loving friend”, “Our dear wee Butcha”, and “Darling Fluff”. In the few cases where an afterlife is referenced, owners are careful not to challenge contemporary Christian orthodoxy and only suggest a hope of reunion.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Stories abound of owners whose dogs kept sniffing or licking a mole or lump on their body so they got it checked out, discovering it was cancerous. The anecdotal evidence was later backed up by scientific studies. Dogs are so good at this that some of them are trained to detect cancer, in as little as three hours.

But by the 1950s, the owner of “Denny”, a “brave little cat”, adds firmly: “God bless until we meet again.” In the same era, religious references become more common – with symbols like crosses and “epitaphs invoking God’s care and protection”. Tourigny, a lecturer in historical archaeology at Newcastle University, found other evidence that pet owners were increasingly likely to view animals as part of the family. He wrote that an increasing number of gravestones used family names after the second world war – though “some early adopters of surnames put them in parentheses or quotation marks, as if to acknowledge they are not full members of the family”.
He also found that owners would increasingly often refer to themselves by familial pronouns like “Mummy”, “Dad”, or “Auntie”. Tourigny said that while it was difficult to quantify precisely, most of the stones “are likely for dogs” – but the proportion of cats and other animals grew as the 20th century went on.

Gravestones in the four pet cemeteries examined cover burials from the 1880s to the 1980s. Since then, cremation has become more common for those who wish to mark their pet’s death.

Tourigny – who has only ever owned two goldfish himself, but has recently adopted two cats, which arrive next week – told the Guardian that one of the most notable recent trends was that jurisdictions around Britain were “allowing humans and animals to be co-buried for the first time”.

It pays to be a lap dog. Three dogs (from First Class cabins!) survived the sinking of the Titanic – two Pomeranians and one Pekingese.

Other modern pet memorial services include paw prints cast in clay, framed collars, and even the chance to turn their ashes into diamonds. But many owners still opt for the simpler approach of burying them in the back garden – or what is euphemistically termed “communal pet cremation”.

While religious views around the world vary, Christianity has traditionally held that animals have no hope of an afterlife. But Pope John Paul II said in 1990 that animals do have souls and are “as near to God as men are”.
Some pet lovers viewed remarks by Pope Francis in 2014 as offering further hope of furry eternity. He said that “what lies ahead … is not an annihilation of the universe and all that surrounds us. Rather, it brings everything to its fullness of being, truth and beauty.”