I’d only walked about five yards into the woods when I saw the grave. I’d left the manicured, family-friendly part of the park and was wading into the scrub to search for morels, but the small grave marker made me pause for a while and reflect — which is, after all, exactly what grave markers are supposed to do.
This was a pet’s grave. A well-loved dog, I assume; it seems likely a person would walk a dog near those woods. The cross at one time had the pet’s name painted on it, but the weather had erased it some time ago. There was also a framed photograph, presumably of the pet, but the sun had bleached it entirely white. Still, a dog seems more probable.
It’s clearly an illegal grave. The land is public land — just over 1,800 acres owned by the county — and I can’t imagine county officials would allow folks to bury their pets there. Besides, the grave was in the woods, not visible from the part of the park maintained by park personnel. Whoever buried this dog had to bring its body to the woods at a time when he wouldn’t be spotted, carry the body far enough into the woods so the grave site wouldn’t be seen by park rangers, dig the grave, place his friend in it, and cover it up. That’s a lot of work. Whoever buried this dog had to love it enough to put its photograph in a nice cherrywood frame. Whoever buried this dog had to make the grave marker, and paint the dog’s name on it along with the letters RIP. Whoever buried this dog wanted it to rest in peace, under a Christian cross. Whoever buried this dog had to love it a lot.
There’s a sort of defiant audacity inherent in the Christian cross (and I say that as a non-Christian). Turning an instrument of governmental torture into a religious symbol is an act of insurrection. It’s an in-your-face statement of resistance. By co-opting the instrument of torture, Christians were saying to their oppressors “You can kill people, but you can’t kill an idea.” It wasn’t like the symbol of the fish — a secret code to be recognized by other Christians; it was an open display, a message to the Romans that despite the fact that he was tortured and executed, Jesus continued to live through his followers.
The Christian cross doesn’t really mean that anymore — at least not in its common usage. The four crosses in the photograph below, for example, aren’t symbolic instruments of torture. They’re not an expression of religious freedom or a token of a struggle against religious oppression. Those crosses are a simple expression of love and hope — love for the person who died, hope that the person is at peace in the company of their god.
And that’s why the cross is appropriate to mark the grave of somebody’s pet. It doesn’t matter that Christian theology denies the existence of a soul in animals. Nor does it matter that Christian orthodoxy says that without a soul, animals can’t be redeemed and thereby enter heaven. The cross over that pet’s grave has nothing to do with theology at all. That cross is an expression of love and hope — love for the dog, hope that it’s at peace, and hope that he’ll somehow be re-united with his friend in a better world.
You don’t have to be a Christian to see and appreciate the beauty in that.