Do animals get to heaven? Itís a question that has often been asked down the centuries. The traditional religious answer in Western countries has been clear and uncompromising: No. Animals have life, but donít have souls like human beings. Nothing survives the death of their physical bodies, so there is no afterlife for animals.
This answer doesnít satisfy many people. How can we be sure animals donít have souls? Dogs, cats and horses canít talk, but they have emotions and relationships with people and with other animals. They donít truly understand the concept of death, but they are often unhappy when a human or animal friend passes away. In some cases, you could say they were mourning.
So some would say that animals do get to heaven. In fact, some people would probably rather meet their departed pets in heaven than their departed relatives. Relationships with animals are easier than relationships with people. Cats and dogs are less complicated than people. Their needs are simpler and their behaviour is easier to understand. They wonít turn on you or let you down the way other people sometimes do. And if theyíre such important parts of our lives on earth, why donít they go to heaven with us?
Questions like this arenít as difficult to answer in some cultures. In India and Japan, for example, the traditional religions accept that animals have souls, just as they did in ancient Egypt. Indian religions like Hinduism teach that even insects have souls and are part of an endless cycle of birth and re-birth. People who behave badly during their lives will be re-born as animals. They have to pay the debt of their sins before they become human again.
And in Hinduism gods and goddesses are represented as animals. There is an elephant-god called Ganesh, for example, and a monkey-god called Hanuman. This also happens in the Japanese religion of Shintoism, which has kept alive traditional beliefs for thousands of years. In Japan, an animal can have a Shinto funeral and then actually be worshipped as a god or goddess.
This has just happened to a female cat called Tama, who was a stray cat adopted by the workers at a railway station called Kishi in Western Japan. She started to welcome passengers at the station, making it famous all over the country and attracting lots of visitors. When the station-workers were laid off to save money and the station was automated, Tama stayed on as ďhonorary station-masterĒ. She continued to welcome passengers until her death earlier this year at the age of 16.
Itís a good age for a cat Ė it would be 80 in human years. Because of her service during life, she was made a goddess in the Shinto religion. Her funeral in late June was attended by 3,000 people, according to reports in the Western media, and in August her body will be taken to a Shinto shrine for cats so that her friends and admirers can continue to pay her homage.
Meanwhile, another cat called Nitama has taken over her old job at Kishi station. Perhaps Nitama will also have a funeral and become a Shinto goddess in time. All this might seem strange from a Western point of view, but Iím sure that many people in Britain would like our traditional religions to have the same attitude. Animals offer human beings friendship and companionship. Theyíre often treated very badly in return. If we honoured them the way they are honoured in Japan, perhaps cruelty would become less common. A funeral for a cat isnít such a strange idea after all.