The Oblivion Bridge

Early last month I threatened all of you that I might be moving some of my old posts from Creek Running North / Coyote Crossing  to this joint, assuming they’re appropriate for the venue. I see it’s been a month since I did so. Somewhat coincidentally, I’ve been a little mopey for the last couple weeks over the sixmonthiversary of having to say goodbye to my friend Thistle, and a post I wrote six months ago last week seemed very much appropriate for Pharyngulizing. So here is is, slightly edited, with special bonus photo.



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 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

At the end of life 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.


  1. magistramarla says

    I like this, Chris.
    It goes along with what Greta has been posting lately since the death of her father.
    I posted there that being godless was a relief when my abusive mother died. I’m glad to not feel that she’s still sticking around somewhere, being her old hateful self. This makes it even better. Her molecules are finally doing something good for the earth and it’s inhabitants.
    On the other hand, my sweet mother-in-law, like your animal friends and mine, will live on in our memories and the funny stories that we tell about them. I think that this is a much better way to honor the ones that we love than to hold onto a mistaken belief that we will be seeing them again.

  2. c. p.norris says

    I don’t want to go to a cloudy heaven but I want to hang around on earth invisible. Think of the views you could have at sporting events.

  3. says

    I can’t stand the Rainbow Bridge nonsense. I’ve never found it remotely comforting. It’s bad enough losing long-term companions, but having rats, I get to deal with the death of loved critters all too often.

    I have a large tree planter outside where I bury my dead rats. I let nature have them for a couple of seasons, then I dig up the remains and save the skulls. It’s weird, I know. Helps me deal. My beloved Chas & Alfie are in that planter now. I’ll see their skulls come Springtime.

  4. says

    Chris: I am so glad that you are posting on pharyngula. I enjoy all your posts. The Oblivion Bridge rings true to me, metaphorically speaking, and is much more comforting than some sketchy afterlife.

  5. catwhisperer says

    I’m currently having to face the fact that my horse won’t live forever – I’ve been thinking that shorter-lived pets might be the way forward. He’s been my friend for roughly two thirds of my life.

    Coincidentally, I think the friend of yours who likened rabbits to lap-dog-sized horses in one of the above links is spot on – I’ve been telling the animal care students I deal with every week to think of horses as half-ton rabbits.

  6. Mal Adapted says

    The knowledge that death is death is comforting to me too. Heaven, especially, has never sounded like a place I’d consign my dearly departed to. I’m not the first one to say that, of course. Wikipedia has the story of Hatuey, who led one of the first rebellions against the Spanish in the Americas:

    Before he was burned, a priest asked him if he would accept Jesus and go to heaven. [Bartolomeo de] Las Casas recalled the reaction of the chief:

    [Hatuey], thinking a little, asked the religious man if Spaniards went to heaven. The religious man answered yes… The chief then said without further thought that he did not want to go there but to hell so as not to be where they were and where he would not see such cruel people. This is the name and honor that God and our faith have earned.

  7. Tetrarch says

    Since Oct. 20, 2009, I have lost four dogs and two horses, aged 11, 10, 12, almost 16, 35, and 21. All but one of the dogs (he died in spring when the ground was frozen) are buried at the farm where I boarded my horses, the dogs at the edge of the woods with the wildflowers and the horses at the edge of the hayfield.

    They live in my memory and those of many others, and in my daughter’s memory when I’m gone, and maybe even in the not-yet-existing grandchild(ren) who will here all those animal stories.

    Blast. I have to go conduct auditions and my heart’s got a hole in it.

  8. Menyambal --- Sambal's Little Helper says

    Thanks, Chris. That Rainbow stuff is ghastly—I like yours much better.

    I find it odd that some folks who take reincarnation for granted (Hindus?) are trying to be good enough to get OFF the wheel of life, while the Christians are trying to get themselves and their pets into an eternal church service.

  9. roundguy says

    I got that same stupid ass rainbow bridge thing with my friend Moe’s ashes earlier this year. I would have rather gotten yours.

    It depresses hell out of me to know I’ll never see my cat buddy again, but it’s a comfort to know he is no longer in pain and isn’t hurting anymore. I’m glad a had a chance to know him.

    I just don’t see the solace people find in some ridiculous afterlife.

  10. Ysanne says

    I’m very sorry about your horse, it’s horrible to lose a long-time companion. And I can assure you, it can be horrible with a short-lived one as well: Rats, for instance, die pretty young, but they are such smart, adorable, trusting and friendly little creatures who can love you back, it just breaks your heart when they die. I loved my rats, and that’s why I won’t have any more, ever.

  11. says


    I loved my rats, and that’s why I won’t have any more, ever.

    I go the opposite way. Lose my beloved rats, I adopt more. Thanks to some seriously bad timing, I now have 24 of the buggers and I wouldn’t give them up for love or money. I cherish every day I’m fortunate enough to have them.

    I am so sorry for your loss though, I know how terribly deep it can cut.

  12. F says

    Now that I can come back to this without weeping, I want to say that I’m sorry for your loss, and for the magical thinking that was delivered to you with Thistle’s remains.

    The story made me sad, but I’m also currently upset about a bird. The bird didn’t make it. (Trigger warning, maybe?) It wasn’t a pet, but a wild bird (I think a juvenile and maybe female Goldfinch) that was stuck in fibered roofing tar. I manages to remove it from the roof, and with hand cleaner, dissolve most of the bulk of the tar, freeing it’s wings and legs. It was terrified, so I stopped and made it a nest, tried to get it to take water and sunflower seeds. It died about 30 hours later. And I keep wondering if I just shouldn’t have killed it and ended its misery at the start.

  13. says

    It’s almost exactly a year since we lost our beloved cat, Olga. I had her for 16 years. According to the vet, she was the only heterochromic Manx (white, no tail, different colored eyes) here in the Morongo basin (I’m a neighbor of yours, in 29) as far as he knew. She’s under a tree in my yard, so in a way she will always be with us. I still miss the Empress of the Observable Universe greatly. I know where she is, and she doesn’t hurt any more. That’s the important thing.

  14. lcaution says

    @c.p.Norris :Not much interested in sporting events but it might be fun to spend a billenium or two floating around the universe, visiting galaxy after galaxy, planet after planet. Not forever, mind you. No doubt, like Q, one would eventually get bored. And, in any case, the universe itself will one day be dead or empty.

  15. catwhisperer says

    Ysanne, thank you. I had a rat once, and she was about the most hilariously entertaining person I’ve ever known. I’ve been recommending them as pets ever since, especially to parents who are thinking along the lines of getting hamsters or gerbils for children – you know, small, fairly easy to look after, and doesn’t need walking three times a day. I don’t think anyone has yet taken my word for it that they actually have personality, and recognize a human hand as just an appendage rather than the Bringer of Food itself.

    Caine, thanks, I’m off to work with the image of 24 little lunatics tearing around a house, digging in plant pots, hiding small items in inaccessible places, and doing their best to get inside people’s trouser legs.

    Cheered me right up!

  16. unclefrogy says

    I got a cat this summer a long and for some would be a disturbing story if all the details were known.
    he is young and has thumbs and they help him climb and look really horribly dangerous. I am pretty safe in saying since there is no getting around it he is not a turtle, a parrot or an elephant I will probably out live him. Sad? I guess but there is much of life that is sad.

    uncle frogy

  17. michealplanck says

    Chris, a bit of advice – you should probably leave your old posts over at your old blog, along with your attitude. Banning people because you don’t know what the word “deontology” means is not really a Pharyngula kind of style.

  18. says

    This is seriously beautiful.

    This post brings to mind when I had to have my first cat Grace euthanized– she was a stray who had kitty leukemia and since we had no other pets, we were the perfect home for her. She was a wonderful and loving cat and thankfully we were able to make the last year of her life a good one.

    About a week after her death, we received a beautiful card with a hand written note from our vet acknowledging how difficult it is to lose a much beloved companion, even one that we only knew briefly. There was no “rainbow bridge” nonsense or any other silly spiritual/religious sentiment, just sympathy for our pain.

    I still have that card somewhere, I think.

  19. michealplanck says

    Comic Sans? So soon?

    For the record, here’s the two horrifying, dreadful posts that got me banned from your site. Under your column titled “Why I’m not voting for Obama”, I responded:

    Do you want to know why things keep getting worse? The answer is here:

    “For most of my adult life, I’ve felt that it was better to stay home than to help put someone into an office knowing that they would engage in activities that I oppose.”

    That is a deontological moral position, a position that says your personal spiritual purity is more important than real world out-comes. Luckily it seems that Bint has outgrown that childish view of morality; now if only the rest of the country would grow up, then things might start getting better.

    The Religious Right and the Progressive Left share one thing in common: this obsession with purity, this desire to have a supernatural hero come in and brush away all the dull real-world facts. The only difference is that cold-eyed billionaires have financed and exploited the Right to advance their agenda. Hence the nation has drifted to the Right, driven by people who don’t believe in evolution or basic economics or simple math. And your response is… to hold your breath until your purity demands are met.

    I would say good luck with that, but you owe Bint more than that. You owe her the civic responsibility of doing the best you can with what you have, of slowing down the rate of sinking even if you can’t actually make the boat float. You owe it to her and all your fellow citizens. You owe it to yourself.

    Followed by:

    Sadly, it does not matter how long or hard you have worked. As soon as you quit, the enemy wins. I do not say this to discount your efforts. I say it because you seem to have forgotten. Perhaps you were only venting, and will, in time, come back to your senses. I hope so.

    The point I was making – that deontology makes one feel good at the expense of actually making good – still stands as the root cause of America’s decline. Too many people choosing their beliefs based on how they feel rather than on they think.

    And yes, I am willing to vote for a torturer when the option is a murderer. So are you, if you wish to remain in the camp of morality. It is an unpleasant but necessary constraint.

    Now you might say it’s easy for me to tell you to buck up, since I live in a civilized country, and you’d be right. It is not fair of me to belittle your accomplishments (oh wait – I didn’t!) or discount your discouragement. I just visited the USA again, and I was shocked at how depressing the aura of permanent crazy is. But that does not change facts.

    You can bitch about Obama all you want. When it comes to civil liberties and the Justice department, I will join you. But abdicating your responsibility is beyond the pale. Worse, using your blog to encourage others to abandon hard reality in favor of childish fantasy does the work of the Republicans. I assure you there is no group more pleased with your headline than the Tea Party.

    To which you responded:

    Yahzi, your concerns have been noted. Now take your odd, narcissistic mix of condescension and lack of reading comprehension somewhere else. We welcome disagreement here, but only that of the honest sort; your presumption that you can see inside people’s hearts and your willingness to level insults, as amusingly pompous as they might be, marks you as Not Quite Coyote Crossing Material.

    Given that history, I would like to suggest that having such a thin skin that you Comic Sans a remark as innocuous as the above may mark you as not quite Pharyngula material. Or, you know, anywhere outside of your own private sandbox where you can silence people that say things you don’t want to hear. But don’t take my word for it; by all means, find out for yourself.

    Incidentally, have you looked up “deontology” yet? Just curious…

  20. John Morales says


    michealplanck, you are totally off-topic; the topic is that animals are people just like people are animals. The mysticism may be annoying, but the sentiment is meritorious.

    (As for deontology, you seem confused — it has nothing to do with motives — rather, it’s basically the position that right is right (and wrong is wrong) regardless of context (IOW rule-based ethics))

  21. michealplanck says

    My topic, in case it wasn’t clear, is that Clarke is not really a good fit for this site. Your comment about mysticism reinforces that point. Indeed, this entire column is the evidence of the point. Devoted dog-lover that I am, I still found this column to be cloying, but more importantly I find its attitude to be wholly inappropriate for Pharyngula.

    Not that my opinions matter; I’m free to drop this site from short list (which now seems inevitable) and I don’t expect anybody to give a rat’s ass. Nonetheless, I am also free to express my opinion, and so I am.

    As for deontology, please read my comments again. I did not claim deontology is a motivation; rather, I discussed the motivations for adopting a deontological stance. Do you disagree with my assessment – that people chose rule-based moralities because of the way they make them feel? Do you disagree that Clarke’s position – that it is better to do nothing than be tainted with the lesser of two evils – is a classically deontological position? One which he holds for the motivation of how it makes him feel?

  22. says

    For the record, michealplanck, your word-a-day-calendar understanding of “deontological” wasn’t the reason I bounced you from my site: it was merely amusing that you criticized me for holding a deontological position and then said that I ought instead to fulfill my duty to a set of rules that you were handing to me ex cathedra based on authority you insisted everyone take on faith.

    And I didn’t ban you for disagreeing, either, as will be clear from the presence of a number of unbanned participants in that thread who staked out positions roughly similar to yours.

    What I banned you for was an apparent inability to argue in good faith, misrepresenting my position and my arguments (as you do again above), claiming you had some sort of magical insight into what I and others actually thought deep down inside, and general pigheaded cluelessness. Said pigheaded cluelessness neatly confirmed when you tried to take the argument to Daily Kos, getting your ass handed to you.

    Now you’ve apparently nursed the grudge long enough to bring it here to a completely unrelated thread more than a year later.

    Which marks you as a troll. Further trollishness from you will be dealt with appropriately. If you can manage to participate like a grownup, which includes dropping this argument now, you’re welcome in my threads. If not, well, losing stuff like what you’ve posted above isn’t much of a disappointment.

    I will make sure to pass your concern about my appropriateness as a coblogger at Pharyngula along to PZ. I’m sure he will treat it with all the seriousness he feels it deserves.

  23. Nancy New, Queen of your Regulatory Nightmare says

    Thanks so much for passing along the “Oblivion Bridge” materials. I have never known why sentimental, sugary, bad light verse is supposed to help with loss.

    We had to take our beloved English Setter Shana to be euthanized last spring, and the idiot paw print and the tacky verse got dumped in the trash immediately.

    I was also not thrilled with the un-asked for vet office grief counseling–and the amount of our time they wasted in giving us a chance to “say good-bye” without asking whether we wanted it. We’d said good-bye in our own way prior to bringing her to the vet’s.

    As a positive: they gave us the option to take the whole process outside, so her last moments were on the grass on a lovely May evening and not in the vet’s treatment room was appreciated.

  24. michealplanck says

    Gosh, Chris, all that text you posted there was almost like a conversation. I guess it takes trapping you in a room where you can’t ban people at will; and even then, you felt the need to threaten it.

    I assume that by tolerance, you meant you didn’t ban the guy who called you a “danger to civilization.” Which I grant you displays a fair amount of tolerance. So in all seriousness, what was so terrible about what I said?

    You assert that it was my attempted mind-reading; that merely calling you a “danger to civilization” is OK, but attempting to discuss why you made your decision was beyond the pale. I don’t how it is not obvious; but when you over-react to something like that, it only gives off the impression that it struck to close to home.

    As it continues to do, apparently. I posted the text so that people could see for themselves; I don’t think any reading of my text justifies the vitriol you handed out. At worst it comes off as over-earnest and humorless; but that is not the same thing as dishonest. And since when is cluelessness a bannable offense, as long as a person is arguing in good faith? When did I demonstrate that I was not willing to hear and consider your side of the argument? You have laid some serious charges at my door; would you care to present any evidence for them? (Considering that the entirety of our exchange is quoted above, I concede that further evidence might be difficult to obtain).

    I am flattered that you followed me over to Daily Kos; however, I confess I am less enthralled that you’ve stumbled into yet another part of the web I used to inhabit. But good news for you – you win!

    That’s right, you win. I’m going to leave and never come back. You’re going to go on with your life, utterly untroubled by me. The fact that you were deeply unfair, that you have spent every interaction insulting me for the temerity of suggesting that standing by and doing nothing was not an appropriate response to evil, the fact that you can use your power as a well-followed blogger to silence people who cut too close to the bone, none of this will trouble your conscience or your sleep. Not one tiny bit. You have shouted me down and need never again face the terrible questions I posed; you need not apply any weight to them; the queasy rage they instill in you (really, you’re still so angry after all this time?) can just be written off to my churlishness.

    Have a nice life. Oh wait – I’m not helping, am I. Here, let’s try again: have a nice life, dickhead. Is that better?

  25. says

    Gosh, a few minutes ago I had never heard of michaelplanck, and now I have.
    A few minutes before that, I followed my nose to find where my elderly dog had pooped, and cleaned up the mess.
    One of those events made my life a bit less stinky.