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Let me tell you a story.
Three days before our dog died this past September, he was in the back yard early in the morning, lounging on the trampoline like he loved doing, when a shadow fell over him. He didn’t bark, like he would have if any other stranger had entered our yard. He didn’t bark because he knew who this stranger was and why they had come. Any dog would have known. Any dog does know.
The stranger sat down on the wooden steps leading up to the trampoline, but they didn’t touch our dog. Not yet. Our dog sighed. He had this way of sighing, almost grunting, a sound deep in his chest, when he lay down to rest, and that’s the sound he made now on the trampoline.
Let me tell you what really happened.
Our dog died, suddenly and unexpectedly in September. He was nine and seemed in good health. He went for a walk and dropped dead on the sidewalk. Typing those words is like pushing glass into my skin. It hurts. The pain lingers.
I don’t want to talk about our dog, but I can tell you about other dead dogs.
As long as humans have lived together with dogs, we’ve had to deal with losing them. It’s easy to imagine that people in ancient times were somehow less emotional about that loss, that their relationships to dogs was more utilitarian and dispassionate, that they viewed dogs as working animals or even a food resource rather than companions. And that might have been true for some people, now and in the past, but surely not for everyone, no matter what era they lived in.
In ancient Greece and Rome, those who lost their dogs sometimes carved their grief into stone and marble. How many grieved their dogs without carving their feelings into stone, we can’t tell.
“Here the stone says it holds the white dog from Melita, the most faithful guardian of Eumelus; Bull they called him while he was yet alive; but now his voice is prisoned in the silent pathways of night.”
“Surely even as thou liest dead in this tomb I deem the wild beasts yet fear thy white bones, huntress Lycas; and thy valour great Pelion knows, and splendid Ossa and the lonely peaks of Cithaeron.”
“I am in tears, while carrying you to your last resting place as much as I rejoiced when bringing you home in my own hands fifteen years ago.”
“This is the tomb of the dog, Stephanos, who perished, Whom Rhodope shed tears for and buried like a human. I am the dog Stephanos, and Rhodope set up a tomb for me.”
It’s worth noting that Stephanos’s small sarcophagus was found near the inscribed sarcophagus of Rhodope.
Did Rhodope’s house feel empty and wrong without Stephanos there, attentive to family and visitors, barking or wagging his tail in greeting? Did Rhodope feel the absence of that dog like a physical ache, like a hollow space in every room, a black sliver of grief cutting into every minute and every hour of every day? Did Rhodope feel the dull pain of a presence in the spaces where Stephanos used to be, the lost sound and touch and presence of that dog like the phantom pain of a severed limb?
People have loved dogs, lived with dogs, buried dogs, grieved dogs, and wept when they died for as long as dogs and people have been together, and that is a very long time. In the Chauvet Cave in southern France, the footprints of a young child walking beside a dog are preserved in the earth. They are 26,000 years old.
Fourteen thousand years ago, a dog was buried beside a human in what is now Germany. The bones show that the dog had been nursed through illness before it died.
Ten thousand years ago, in what is now Illinois, three dogs were buried alongside humans. The bones of the dogs were undamaged and had been buried with great care.
Seven thousand years ago, in Denmark and southern Sweden, many dogs were buried with care and ceremony. They lie crouched, as if sleeping, and the bodies have been covered with red ochre, and sometimes grave goods have been placed near them.
Four thousand years ago, on the Iberian Peninsula, humans regularly shared their grave sites with dogs.
Two thousand five hundred years ago, in Ashkelon, in what is now Israel, more than one thousand dogs were buried in what can only be described as a dog cemetery. Each dog is placed carefully in an unmarked grave, feet and tail tucked in as if they’re sleeping. The goddess Astarte (and later Aphrodite) was worshiped in Ashkelon, and it is thought that dogs were connected to that worship. Many of the buried dogs are puppies, and it doesn’t seem like they were sacrificed or killed. Rather, they might have died from natural causes. Before the advent of modern medicine, puppies, like babies and children, often died. Being born has always been a dangerous business.
Many dogs are depicted, lovingly, in the reliefs and frescoes of ancient Egyptian tombs. Some of them are even named. Near the Giza plateau, close to the Great Pyramid, sometime during the Old Kingdom a dog named Abuwtiyuw was buried with great honors. Abuwtiyuw was likely a sight hound, a hunting dog resembling a greyhound. He was not the dog of a pharaoh, but belonged to a royal servant. The inscribed slab found at Giza says,
“The dog which was the guard of His Majesty, Abuwtiyuw is his name. His Majesty ordered that he be buried (ceremonially), that he be given a coffin from the royal treasury, fine linen in great quantity, (and) incense. His Majesty (also) gave perfumed ointment, and (ordered) that a tomb be built for him by the gangs of masons. His Majesty did this for him in order that he (the dog) might be Honored (before the great god, Anubis).”
In ancient Egypt, the dog-jackal god Anubis guided the souls of the dead to the Hall of Truth. There, they were judged before they could pass on to the afterlife, the Field of Reeds, if they were deemed worthy.
Dogs have been no strangers to the afterlife in other times and places either. Sometimes they are heralds of death and doom, like Shuck and the barghest. Sometimes they are guides to the underworld, like Anubis. Sometimes they are the guardians of that Other realm. Cerberus guards the gates of Hades. In Welsh mythology the Otherworld, Annwn, is home to Cŵn Annwn, the “hounds of Annwn”. In the Norse myths, a dog named Garm guards the gates of Hel.
It should come as no surprise that we have decided to share the afterlife with dogs.
We have shared our food and our homes with dogs for millennia. For thousands upon thousands of years, they have kept us company, played with our children, guarded our herds and fields and yards, hunted with us, pulled our sleds, shared our feasts and our famine, shared our beds, fought beside us. No other animal understands and relies on human beings the way dogs do. You could argue, as I do, that dogs are our best invention.
It should come as no surprise that dogs appear in our graves, in our cemeteries, and in our ceremonies and stories about death. It should come as no surprise that in every age, human beings have grieved for and paid homage to their dogs.
Our dog died on the sidewalk, beside my husband. They had walked that particular stretch of sidewalk thousands of times together through the years. They had passed that house, that hedge, that small patch of grass, not knowing what would happen there.
Death came swiftly. Our dog’s legs shook, he dropped, he opened his eyes for a moment and looked at my husband, and then he was gone. His body, his big, powerful body that I had cuddled and held, walked with and cared for, lay still. By the time I got there with the kids, we could do nothing but cry. My youngest huddled over the dead body in the back of the minivan as we looked for a place to take him. It was late in the day. Only one vet clinic was open. Before we carried our dog inside, I ran my hands over his body to feel it one last time, to remember what it felt like to touch him. The roughness of the pads on his paws. The callused skin on his elbow joints. That splintered back claw that always grew in crooked after he’d injured it when he slipped on our icy deck one morning. Those half-floppy ears. That lovely black snout with silver hairs. That groove in the bone of his skull running straight between his ears.
It hurts to write even now. The pain is black glass under my skin. It lingers. It does not fade.
We did not bury our dog and carve an epitaph in stone for him. We left his body at the vet’s office to be cremated.
A week later, they called me from the vet clinic to say that we could pick up his ashes. I was in the car, in the middle of doing something and I thought, “I can’t do it, I can’t stand it.” Then I turned my car around and drove straight there. Our dog always hated going to vet. I couldn’t leave him there.
The box with his ashes was heavy. I sat in the car with it on my lap and cried. My heart was that heavy box, that box of ashes that held everything that had once been our dog. I cried, and then I took him home, and when I put his ashes down on the shelf by the fireplace, it felt right. At least he was home. At least he wasn’t lost. At least he was with us.
We bury the dogs we loved, or keep their ashes close, or spread their ashes in a place our dogs loved, because that is what we need to do keep living. We carve our sorrow, our epitaphs, into stone, into steles, or write it down in journals or share it on social media because the love we felt for those companions has to go somewhere.
I don’t know anything about death. I don’t know what comes after we leave this life behind. I don’t know what I truly believe comes after. I do believe that the stories we tell ourselves and others about death, about the afterlife, about guides and guardians, about Garm and Hel, Cerberus and Hades, Anubis and the Field of Reeds, are told to make it easier to live with what we don’t know.
So let me tell you a story.
Three days before our dog died, he lay beside the Stranger and they spoke to each other. It was no language you or I would understand. It was the language spoken between a dog and a familiar stranger with a jackal’s head. Any dog would have understood it. Any dog does understand it.
Soon, said the Stranger.
Our dog felt the early morning sun on his skin, the breeze, the gentle swaying of the trampoline where he’d played and slept more times than he could properly remember. He thought of the house, left unguarded in his absence. He thought of his pack, his people, inside that house. He thought of how he’d protected them, how he had kept them company, how he had grown up with the children of that house, playing and running and resting. He thought of the days and nights when he had saved them, just by being there. He thought of how they had been his companions, as he had been theirs.
I don’t want to linger, he told the Stranger, and I don’t want to pass alone in a place I don’t know.
The Stranger nodded. Some wishes the Stranger could fulfill. Some they could not. The Stranger did not touch our dog, not yet. But they sat together as the sun rose over the roofs and trees, and when our dog woke up from his nap, the Stranger was gone. Our dog walked into the house, wagging his tail in greeting.