Folks who grew up attending Sunday school each week have either heard some version of the question, or asked some version of it themselves:
Do our pets go to heaven when they die?
The discussion of pets, souls and the afterlife is practically a rite of passage. For many children, it marks the first serious consideration of mortality, whether they're actually aware of it at the time or not.
The question is answered by parents and educators in a variety of ways: yes, they do; no, they go to Animal Heaven instead; hey, let's avoid this potential mess by putting on an animated movie whose title suggests that it confronts the issue, but it doesn't really. Either way, that particular Pandora's Box is open.
Standing behind a cafeteria-style folding table under a pavilion tent, Rev. Mary Beth Packard doesn't dwell too heavily on the subject of pets going to heaven.
"I believe there's a good possibility [that they do]," she muses with a smile.
Then she gets down to the work of blessing them.
It's a sunny but mercifully breezy Saturday morning, and for the second consecutive year, St. Mark's United Methodist Church of west St. Pete has invited the public to bring their pets out to its lawn for a blessing. Thirty or so folks have congregated on the church grass. They sit on lawn chairs in the shade or mill about at the tent's edges.
Not everyone pays Rev. Packard the strictest silent attention; she's in shades and semi-casual street clothes, and the atmosphere is one of a spaghetti dinner or afternoon social rather than a religious service.
Besides, there are plenty of other things vying for one's attention. While humans far outnumber animals on the lawn — several parishioners have obviously shown up petless in a show of support — there are still plenty of four-legged critters about. A dozen dogs, including one tiny Chihuahua wearing a colorful little pair of surfer's board shorts, are in attendance, on and off leashes, sniffing each other's asses and wagging their tails to beat the band, but generally on their best behavior.
Three cats lounge in pet carriers resting on three little girls' laps. And behind the tent, next to a low white fence separating St. Mark's lawn from the lawn of the church next door, a pair of horses stands, each with a pre-teen warden keeping it in line. One of them — the horses, not the pre-teen wardens — chews unbelievably loudly as it decimates a four-foot circle of grass directly in front of it.
("Yes, I did see the horses," says an elderly woman, irritably, to her adult daughter. "I've got eyes, thank you.")
One by one, the cats and dogs are led or carried to the front of the tent, to Rev. Packer and the bowl of water sitting next to her on the table. (Next to it sits another bowl, full of contributions to a charity that takes care of the many domesticated animals displaced or left without owners as a result of Hurricane Katrina.)
She rubs a little of the holy water into the fur of each canine or feline head, smiling and murmuring a blessing too quiet for anyone more than a dozen feet away to hear clearly. She asks questions about each animal, while a helper gets the pet's name and writes it down on a certificate, which, I guess, will be handed to St. Peter at the pearly gates by each pet's owner in order to be reunited with his or her beloved Bowser or Mittens on Judgment Day.
"What's his name?" Rev. Packer asks a young boy holding a black puppy that's at least half Labrador.
"Midnight," he says shyly.
"I can see how he got it," she says, and coos into the puppy's too-cute face.
After the last house pet is blessed, Rev. Packer crosses the grass to where the horses stand, the gray one still chewing like a cow with an entire pack of Bubblicious in its jaws. She strokes their long faces in turn, talking to them in that same quiet, interested voice, telling them they're special, chosen, loved.
Then the horses go back in the trailer. The two narrow dogs that look too small to be whippets — they must be Italian Greyhounds — are led nervously back to the car. The cat carriers are stowed. Some parishioners hang around to speak with one another or Rev. Packer, whose sharp but easygoing charisma seems to put people naturally at ease, but most of the pet owners need to get their little ones out of the sun, and depart.
The blessings obviously weren't about reserving pets a place in heaven — they were much more for the comfort, and in some cases, I daresay amusement, of the owners — but as I leave, I can't help but think again of the concept of animals and the afterlife.
If there is a heaven, like Reverend Packer I'm pretty sure that pets get to go. I mean, really, think about it. If there's a heaven, then there's got to be a hell.
And Mailman Hell's got to be the same place as Doggie Heaven, right?