The dramatic Easter saga of crucifixion and resurrection includes some wonderful images — a cross, an empty tomb, candle, paschal lamb, bunny with colored eggs, and white lily.
My family has added a hamster to the list.
For Easter in the early 2000s, my wife, Vicki, and our three young children visited my older sister, Karen, who lives near Fort Worth, Texas. Karen and her husband, Chip, have three daughters about the same age as our kids.
Karen honored our mother, Kathleen, by naming her daughters Katie, Kater, Kaylin. We just called them the “K girls.”
The K girls loved animals and made their home, located on a wooded 1-acre lot, a menagerie. The place was filled with dogs, cats, fish, birds and other animals.
During our Easter visit, my niece Kater proudly introduced us to her latest pet: a hamster she named Puff because of his billowy golden fur.
Puff was easy to like. He trotted with gusto on his hamster wheel. He was cute and personable. He twitched his little nose and whiskers often to remind you of his many virtues.
Our two daughters and our son were gobsmacked. They lined up at Puff’s elaborate multilevel, tubed hamster habitat to hold and play with him every chance they got.
Despite his amiable nature, Puff had two major flaws. One was an intense wanderlust. The other was an uncanny ability to get out of his container.
During our Easter visit, we often encountered Puff jaunting about on a carpeted floor far from his domicile. My sister warned Kater about such risky behavior. “Remember, we have cats in this house too.”
Indeed, I noticed that one beautiful and cunning family cat named Mimi watched Puff with keen interest.
On Good Friday morning — crucifixion day in the Christian calendar — a banshee’s ear-piercing shriek woke me up. It was Kater wailing.
I stumbled into her room and upon a ghastly sight. During her nocturnal patrol of the house, Mimi the Cat had found and consumed much of Puff the Hamster.
I pulled Kater away from the grisly scene and then went back in to clean up the mess. I placed Puff’s earthly remains in a small box while Karen and Chip prepared a final resting place in their backyard pet cemetery.
We paid our respects and laid Puff to rest. The siblings and cousins consoled Kater. With the extra company and related distractions, she bounced back quickly and even prepared a grave marker with her wood-burning set.
As we drove to Easter Vigil Mass on Saturday evening, I overheard an interesting conversation in the back seat. The kids were talking about the events of the day before.
One of them asked, “What if Puff is the Jesus of hamsters?” The car buzzed with excited discussion as the amateur theologians weighed the possibility and wrestled with an intriguing question about the afterlife.
I’ve noodled over the same notion, too.
When our beloved family collie, Laddie, died in 1997, a friend from The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City sent us a copy of the children’s story “Dog Heaven” by Cynthia Rylant. The book eased my grief.
Rylant announced that all dogs go to heaven and wrote that when they get there, “they don’t need wings because God knows that dogs love running best. He gives them fields. Fields and fields and fields. When a dog first arrives in heaven, he just runs.”
Rylant was right about Laddie. He loved to run. He was kind, devoted, protective of our children and peaceful.
He died about the time when Vicki became pregnant with our son Danny. Laddie and Danny share the same loving characteristics, making me wonder sometimes if reincarnation could ever fit into Catholic belief.
The best theologians agree with Rylant and me — about animals in heaven, that is, not about Christian reincarnation.
In his 2001 book “The Catholic Imagination,” priest Andrew Greeley described how “Catholics live in an enchanted world…of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures.”
Greeley said these are “mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the holy lurking in creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.”
It’s hard to imagine a better revelation of that amazing grace than a beloved pet.
In his 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis stated that “eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place. …In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this [earthly] home which has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast.”
At the October 1928 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, eventual church President Joseph Fielding Smith proclaimed, “The animals, the fishes of the sea, the fowls of the air, as well as man, are to be re-created, or renewed, through the resurrection, for they too are living souls.”
Afterlife for pets
Such delightful ideas must have stirred me from sleep early on Easter morning at my sister’s house during our Texas visit. I peeked out the window, with the children’s metaphysical speculations in mind.
My head doubted I would see Puff the Hamster again, but my heart recalled that my sister’s house had witnessed other wondrous events.
Karen had struggled to bear children, so the sight of my three beautiful K girl nieces cavorting around her home was miraculous. A small plane almost hit their house in the 1990s, but a tree shielded them, and both the pilot and the tree survived. Karen’s family also had a black Lab named Austin who, Harry Houdini-style, could escape through any obstacle Chip set up to keep him in the backyard.
Alas, notwithstanding all the cosmic magic and mystery that saturated the place, I did not see a Lazarus-like Puff the Hamster scampering around my sister’s backyard on that Easter morning long ago. If Puff was the Jesus of hamsters, and if he did rise from the dead, he showed himself to someone more worthy than me.
The Easter Hamster, however, did reveal something else to me that day. A beautiful and powerful theology resides within the simple devotion and love that we — especially children — give to our pets and that they give back. It is a grace that transcends crucifixion, and the sweet memory resurrects hope in our hearts if we let it.
Like so many of our animal friends, Puff did not live long, and faced a difficult end of life, but he brought joy and happiness while he was around. The kids who knew him, and witnessed his untimely demise, have grown into kind and compassionate adults. We think of the Easter Hamster fondly every year. And you are reading about him right now.
Not a bad form of life after death, if you ask me.
Michael Patrick O’Brien is a writer and attorney living in Salt Lake City who often represents The Salt Lake Tribune in legal matters. His book “Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks,” about growing up with the monks at an old Trappist monastery in Huntsville, was published by Paraclete Press and chosen by the League of Utah Writers as the best nonfiction book of 2022.