Accepted paper:

The belief in animal immortality as a source of uncertainty and disquiet


Stanley Brandes (University of California, Berkeley)

Paper short abstract:

Research at pet cemeteries in the USA, France and elsewhere indicates a growing belief in animal immortality. This paper examines the nature of these beliefs and the causes for their appearance. The paper discusses animal immortality as a contested field, which produces discomfort and disagreement among people from various religious communities.

Paper long abstract:

Over the past hundred years, citizens in the most economically advanced, post-industrial societies have begun to blur the conceptual distinction between human beings and other living creatures. The most recent manifestation of this trend is the growing attribution of sacred qualities, including the presence of souls and the possibility of immortality, to non-human animals. This belief extends to animals of all kinds (e.g., dolphins and whales), but particularly to household pets, including most prominently dogs, cats, birds, and rabbits. Evidence for the recent florescence of this belief comes in large part from fieldwork at pet cemeteries and crematories in the United States, France, and Japan. Gravestone inscriptions at the oldest pet cemeteries—that is, the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery outside of New York City, and the Cimetière de Chiens outside of Paris—demonstrate the increasing ascription of human characteristics to animals over the past hundred years. These characteristics include religious affiliation, ethnic identity, and the expectation of being reunited eternally with owners in the afterlife. Interviews with clerics and people from different religious communities show disagreement over the presence of animal souls and their immortality. The same disquiet emerges among pet loss support groups, in which owners mourn the death of beloved companion animals. In addition to providing an overview of animal immortality as a contested field, this paper focuses on discomfort and uncertainty among religious Jews, who oppose or defend the belief in animal immortality.

panel W087
Dealing with doubts, putting to test: the importance of uncertainty in vernacular religion