Sunday, October 29, 2006

Faith and Religion Part III: The Afterlife

All religions deal with death in some way, but making your child understand the concept can be difficult. The death of a pet, thankfully, is a perfect starting point for this kind of discussion. In most cases, a child will lose a pet before they lose a close family member. You can increase the chances of this happening by buying a pet that is guaranteed not to live longer than a few months, like a goldfish or an injured kitten rolled in bacon grease.

When you broach the subject, do not begin with death itself. The inevitability of death is a terrifying notion for a young child to comprehend. Instead, engage your child by showing them how fun and interesting a skeleton can be, especially a giraffe skeleton, which can be used as a scarf rack or a kind of escape scaffold for a treed kitten. Also, its legs can support several hammocks at varying heights, making it perfect for slumber parties. Let your child know that when they die it is quite likely those they left behind will use his or her skeleton as some kind of percussion instrument, or wind chime. This is not out of disrespect, but rather a celebration of their soul and spirit moving to another plane. Or ascending to heaven. Or being reincarnated into a new life form. Really, you could tell your child when they die they’ll spend eternity in a world where everything is made of chocolate and flying whales crap pink helicopters out of their eye sockets. Kids will pretty much believe anything.

Let’s assume your child’s dog has died. Unless your child has been raised Buddhist, the permanence of death will not be easy for them to contend with. That is not to say that raising a Buddhist child is easy. A Buddhist child will often smile at inappropriate times and be generally smug and annoying until you just want to smash the little bastard in the face with a lamp.

What the child will see when they look at their dog is not the decaying vessel of a freed spirit, but rather a friend and companion they will never be able to play with, or confide in, again. You can concoct some vague concept like “dog heaven,” but I would not recommend it. Once you’ve planted the notion of a specific “heaven” for one animal, you’re going to have to do the same for all creatures. This may not seem like a big deal, but there are over a million species on this planet and new species of insect are always being discovered. It’s not a journey you want to embark upon, unless explaining what the insect order Mantophasmatodea considers eternal paradise seems like a constructive way to spend time with your child. I will submit that it is not.

Our idea of what heaven is changes considerably as we grow older, and often reflects our terrestrial, and finite, perception. When I was five-years-old I thought of heaven as a tropical paradise with coconut trees and deep, unclouded lakes. Now I realize how foolish and simple-minded this concept is, and that they’re most likely banana trees, not coconut. Jean Paul Sartre once described Hell as “other people,” which means heaven is people you haven’t met yet. Belinda Carlisle sang that heaven “is a place on Earth,” which, if true, means Belinda Carlisle will never die. This cannot be, however, because someone, somewhere, envisions heaven as a never-ending Go-Go’s reunion concert, and if Belinda Carlisle is spending eternity on Earth like some kind of mildly sexy vampire, then that person’s idea of the afterlife can never be realized. The works of both Sartre and Carlisle have confounded theologians for ages, and ultimately they prove that heaven is a concept far beyond our understanding.

This kind of non-answer will not satisfy a child though, especially one who has lost a pet. You can appease you child, however, by using their natural inquisitiveness against them. For example, if your child asks what happened to their beloved dog, you reply: “He went to the most wonderful place imaginable. By the way, how many times a day do you think Aquaman uses the bathroom? I think he just urinates while he’s swimming around in the ocean. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that’s okay. Have you been doing that to the ocean, young man? Answer me!”

If you say this forcefully, and with enough conviction, your child will have no recourse but to answer for himself, even if your family lives in Wisconsin and has never been to the ocean. In 1982 my own father skirted the issue of heaven and the afterlife by suddenly and inexplicably blaming me for the death of Leonid Brezhnev. To this day, I have no memory of ever having a pet, but rather a nagging uncertainty as to my whereabouts on November 10, 1982. If you can achieve the dual task of squelching your child’s fear of death while simultaneously instilling them with a vague yet deeply ingrained sense of guilt that controls every major decision they make in life, then you’ve already achieved what would normally take several years of Sunday school.

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