When humans die, they sometimes leave complicated legacies. Were they good or bad? Just how good were they? What impact did they make on the world around them?
And what was in their will?
I suppose this is one reason why the passing of our most beloved pets taps into purer emotions, deeper connections than we feel for certain people we've encountered in life.
Mmm. Maybe a lot of people, actually.
Our pets don't judge us by what we look like, who we vote for, how much money we have, or where we went to college.
"Friends, the animals of God's creation abound," First United Methodist Church Pastor George Loveland said from his pulpit last Thursday. "Throughout the skies, the earth and the seas. They share in the joys and the sorrows of human existence. They are an intimate part of our lives."
Last Thursday, the Rev. Loveland led "Love Never Dies," "a service of remembrance and gratitude for animals we have loved and lost."
The service, the kind where tissues are distributed beforehand, originated with the passing of Gracie, Phyllis Castelli's soulful black Labrador who was a First United Methodist regular and known to help Phyllis deliver children's sermons.
When Gracie died, people offered their condolences to Castelli by sharing stories of their own pets and the sadness that accompanied their deaths. So Gracie's memorial service evolved into the communal observance that occurred the evening of Sept. 15, a time for everyone involved to reflect on the meaning of pets in their lives and how it might be connected to their Christian faith.
Images of Gracie were projected onto the walls of the sanctuary as Castelli delivered her homily before the commencement of a slideshow that featured the names and faces of congregants' most cherished pets, complemented by pianist Cindy Edwards' renditions of "Going Home" and "Softly and Tenderly."
Beau, Blue, Buddy, Carter... the parade of pets continued before a blessing by Rev. Loveland and a reading by James Edwards of "So God Made a Dog."
For the blessing, attendees wrote down the names of their departed pets and their favorite memories of them on a card before placing the words in front of the pulpit to be lifted up in spirit.
Castelli noted in her introductory remarks that animals love us unconditionally, willfully forgiving the flaws of mankind.
They teach us "loyalty, patience, empathy, sincerity, and the joy of living fully in the present moment," Castelli said before telling Gracie's story.
Gracie embraced life with her whole heart. She warmly greeted others, liked taking walks and playing ball, and "Her middle name really should have been Don't Eat That," Castelli said.
Gracie became a therapy dog with a "strong spiritual presence" and "serene attentiveness."
"Gracie knew that love was the answer to every question," Castelli said, "and that love never dies."
Castelli spoke about the devastating grief that Gracie's passing brought on. A seemingly successful surgery removed a tumor but cancer returned and eventually, Castelli's only recourse was to make sure Gracie wouldn't die afraid and in pain.
"Gracie was held and loved and talked to and then like a whisper in the wind," Castelli said, "she was gone."
Castelli learned that grief doesn't have to be avoided, adding that Gracie's death was only one part of her four-legged companion's journey.
When thoughts of Gracie return, Castelli has chosen to wallow in them rather than repress them. To jump in them like a pile of leaves, grateful that the memories exist.
"I am bothered by knowing near the end of her life Gracie couldn't breathe but my comfort is," Castelli said, "I believe God first breathed life into Gracie and has now breathed Gracie into me."
I'm reminded of a recent trip to the Vance County Animal Shelter in which I was informed of the high volume of local residents that have been surrendering pets. Sometimes the pets are sick and sometimes, and I'm not making this up, people discard their pets when they go on vacation, never returning for them. It's representative of a nationwide problem that increased during the pandemic as folks obtained pets and then — got tired of them, I guess?
An awful lot can be learned about someone by how they treat their pets. Really, it's a measure of compassion that correlates with our general worldview and how we regard our fellow man and the earth we inhabit.
The messages that Castelli and Loveland imparted last week were rooted in faith and not dissimilar from more customary memorial services (for people).
In his sermon, Loveland said that animals are reminders of God's gift of salvation and that they share in Christ's redemption.
Then there's the question of eternity, which many often wrestle with but had already been answered at First United Methodist with the very title of the memorial.
Love never dies.
"After all, God created [pets] to be humans' companions for life," Loveland said, "so God would never separate them in death. Thanks be to God."