The Oblivion Bridge

We got Thistle’s ashes back today. Included in the little package the vets handed me were a cedar box containing his cremains, a plaster of Paris medallion with his footprint, and a certificate avowing that the crematory had handled him gently and given me the right ashes and not those of some stray possum or something.

They also included a little piece of paper with some italic text superimposed over a rainbow. I didn’t have to read that to know what it said.

I’ve written about this before. The bunny funeral director was trying to be nice by including some reassuring poetry in the package. I expect they would be horrified to know that doing so reliably upsets a certain percentage of their customers. But it does. My ex-wife and I got the same poem in a card from Zeke’s vet, and it was one of just a few things that made my phenomenally stoic ex-wife cry. I just teared up reading it now, though about Zeke more than about Thistle. This is largely because of the wording. If I died and found there was an afterlife and I was on a grassy field and I saw Thistle running toward me at high speed, I would be pretty sure he didn’t intend to kiss me.

Still, it stung a bit. I grow increasingly impatient with the assumption that we all really believe in an afterlife even if we say we don’t. I am as certain there is no afterlife as I am of anything. This isn’t a defiant belief I indulge in as a way of rebelling against God. It’s an end result of learning about how the world works.

The thing is, the realization that death is death is immensely comforting. Were there an off-world heaven to which the dead, non-corporeal me was consigned, I’d do my best to obtain conscientious objector status. I love this planet: why would I want to spend a conscious eternity looking at it through a veil of gauzy clouds? Far better to ooze, insensate, into the world, to become part of the tree’s flesh and the coyote’s fur and the bighorn’s helmet.

And as Zeke was never the kind of person who liked to stay in a kennel, no matter how capacious, the effect of the Rainbow Bridge image on the portion of me that finds it compelling is, more or less, to make me feel guilty that I’m delaying picking him up as long as possible.

So I griped about it a bit on Facebook. My dear friend Sara replied that we atheists don’t need the Rainbow Bridge, because we have the Oblivion Bridge. Sara is wise, and has herself looked death in the eye and chucked it under the chin on a couple of occasions. So I pretty much had to flesh out her inspiration.

The Oblivion Bridge

On the other side of sleep is a completely metaphorical place called Oblivion Bridge.

When an animal dies that has been especially close to a human or other animal, that animal goes to Oblivion Bridge.

The molecules that made up their beautiful bodies are redistributed into meadows and hills, forests, deserts and oceans, where they will provide sustenance for all still-living things.

The departed have no need for food, water or sunshine, not must they worry about being warm and comfortable.

All the animals who had been ill and old are no longer. Those who had been hurt or maimed have stopped suffering. All their component parts now gently mix into a thriving ecosystem that supports other beautiful animals as they live their own lives, just as we remember our loved ones doing in our dreams of days and times gone by.

All is well and as it should be, except for one small thing; though our dead animal friends are at peace, they leave a hole in the lives of those they leave behind.

The day will come when you stop and look into the distance, your bright eyes intent, your eager heart quivering. Suddenly that heart will stop.

You have died, and when your atoms dissolve into the living earth they will, statistically speaking, mingle with those of your long-lost animal companion. What’s left of you will cling together in unconscious reunion, never to be parted again. Your grief over your loss will be wiped away, as will all your memories of your pet, whether they’re happy or sad.

Thus you cross Oblivion Bridge together. Metaphorically speaking.

8 thoughts on “The Oblivion Bridge

  1. Jean Ossorio

    “All their component parts now gently mix into a thriving ecosystem that supports other beautiful animals as they live their own lives, just as we remember our loved ones doing in our dreams of days and times gone by.” 

    Nicely put, Chris, although I confess I sometimes harbor just a slight hope that at least a few of those molecules from my late grandfather’s body are coursing through the circulatory system or comprising the musculature of the wing of a sharp-eyed hawk or eagle, soaring over the rolling hills of Missouri, as was his expressed wish in his lifetime. Not that he would be aware of their presence there, of course.

  2. Steve Gyetko

    Re:  “Oblivion Bridge”.  Good stuff.  If only more people could see this side of atheists, and atheism in general.  No animosity, no hostility, just a belief in non-belief, mixed, in this case, with a gentle wit and tolerance, sadly lacking in many of those who self identify as ‘people of faith’.  All too often these ‘people of faith’ are vicious, petty, mean ‘spirited’ folk, actively hostile to the notion that some of us do not subscribe to their view.  Frankly, it seems a bit odd to me that they would invest so much energy in vitriolic, vociferous attacks on the athiest community.  From here it seems like such a waste of time.

  3. Edie Jarolim

    Thank you! I always feel like so mean-spirited when I diss the Rainbow Bridge (though I devoted a section of my book Am I Boring My Dog to doing just that). This is a lovely way of explaining how some of us feel about The Bridge. And it’s not even mean spirited.

  4. H. Houlahan

    Not to mention.

    Even if one does entertain a belief in an afterlife, or is agnostic on the question, the Rainbow Bridge is the realm of My Little Pony.  Plastic, insipid, unnatural, egocentric and childish.

    I don’t know what happened to the individual identities that were Mel and Lilly when they departed this mortal coil, but I’m as sure as I could possibly be that they are not patiently waiting for me to come complete them. What am I, a dissolute Chinese emperor?

    For a real emetic experience, look up the self-congratulatory glurge that is the rainbow bridge for animal rescuers.

  5. Yewtree

    I had never even heard of the Rainbow Bridge until my cat died. As far as I was concerned, the Rainbow Bridge is the English name for Bifrost, the bridge made of a rainbow that connects Asgard and Midgard in Norse mythology.

    When I looked it up, I did think it was a sort of mythological stopgap for Christians who get told that animals don’t go to heaven.

    I believe in reincarnation, personally, so it didn’t really help. But I thought it was kind of people to mention it, though it is a bit schmalzy.

    I love your description of the constituent molecules being mixed in with everything. On days when I don’t believe in reincarnation, the imagery of dissolution into everything else is equally lovely.

  6. robin andrea

    The only “Rainbow Bridge” I had ever heard of was a posthumous-released Jimi Hendrix album in 1971. I wondered why vets were giving that out with the ashes of our well-loved pets. I hadn’t thought about that album in so many years, so I checked Wikipedia and found this: The pairing of Rainbow Bridge with The Cry of Love comprises the bulk of the most complete tracks that Hendrix was intending to release on his next (double) LP, First Rays of the New Rising Sun.

    I like the idea of the Rainbow Bridge being paired with The Cry of Love. That works for me.

    The other Rainbow Bridge is just such mindless drivel and cloying silliness. Your Oblivion Bridge is so much more comforting to me. I’m going to copy it and keep it on file. We’re all crossing that bridge.

  7. Karen

    I find the concept of the Oblivion Bridge extremely comforting.  To remember that death begets life in so many ways is encouraging.  (Though I’ve said in the past that I wanted my ashes to be dropped in a subduction trench, so I could eventually become part of a volcano. :-) )