After my mother died I was very comforted by the image in the Christian Tradition of being surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). I had always loved the image of the Communion of Saints, but suddenly it became much more personal. Certainly I had lost grandparents previously whom I had known, but was not as close to them as to my mother.
One of the lovely physical gifts she left to me was a collection of Inuit Soapstone carvings. The Inuit are people who inhabit the Northern regions near the Arctic and are wonderful artists. They depict many of the animals as dancing. I later discovered that in their belief system, when people die they come back in animal form which is considered to be a higher level of existence. Therefore the animals are dancing with joy at the state they find themselves in. The polar bear is considered the king of the animal world, so the highest form. I have this wonderful conga-line of dancing animals on my mantel, celebrating life after death and the joyous souls of animals. I love to imagine my mother as a dancing polar bear.
With Duke gone now, I wondered if I could find an image of the Communion of Saints that included animal figures in it. I haven’t been able to (if you know of one I would love to see it). Perhaps I will have to just create one myself. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to honor the soulfulness of the creatures of our lives and know that they are part of the great “cloud of wtinesses.”
-Christine Valters Paintner