Laying Animals to Rest
The AP just reported on an interesting item: a pet cemetery has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Founded in 1896, The Hartsdale Pet Cemetery and Crematory in Hartsdale, New York, is the first pet cemetery in the United States. Dr. Samuel Johnson, a veterinarian, wanted to bury a client's dog, and offered up space in his apple orchard to do so.
Once word got out about this one act of kindness, people throughout New York began requesting that their pets also be buried on Dr. Johnson's land, and thus, the country's first cemetery for companion animals was created. Today, besides the 75,000 companion animal graves, Hartsdale also houses the War Dog Memorial, the first memorial, erected in 1923, to explicitly honor the dogs who served in our nation's wars.
What makes this so notable is that prior to that time, animals had no formal place to be laid to rest. No matter how loved individual animals were, our society had not yet come up with a way to honor and memorialize them when they died. Dead animals, whether livestock or working animal or pet, were often treated like garbage and thrown away with the rest of a city's refuse. With the rise of the pet cemetery industry, not only did people have a way to deal with the bodies of their dead companions (a problem for urban residents who could not simply bury a dog in their back yard), but they had a way to permanently memorialize them as well.
It goes without saying that the bonds between many people and their companion animals are as deep and rich as those that we share with other humans. When these beloved members of our life leave us-as they almost certainly will do, since most companion animals have such abbreviated life expectancies-many people mourn just as deeply, if not deeper, than if they had lost a human family member.
But not only does society often trivialize these deaths-we get no bereavement days at work for the loss of a companion animal-but pet lovers often struggle with how to share not just the news of an animal's death, but the importance of that animal. I, for example, blog through my animals' voices and when an important animal in my life dies, I blog about him or her. I want to let people know who that animal was, what they were like, and how important they were to me. I want people to know that they were here, and that they mattered.
Formal burials are a much more ancient way of doing that. At Hartsdale, as at other pet cemeteries, the grieving person can invite their family and friends to a funeral and there, surrounded by those who knew the animal, people can reminisce, and, for those with religious sentiments, they can have a member of the clergy present to lead the mourners in prayer.
The grave marker is another way to make concrete the memory of a special friend. One grave at Hartsdale, for an animal named Grumpy, had this written on the headstone: "August 4, 1915-September 20, 1926. His sympathetic love and understanding enriched our lives. He waits for us." The love and grief of Grumpy's family is palpable in that message, as is the idea, which many subscribe to today, that humans and animals will share in an afterlife together. Many of the graves at Hartsdale have inscriptions written in foreign languages and scripts, demonstrating that the love between human and non-human extends across cultures.
Unlike most pet cemeteries, Hartsdale is unusual in that humans can elect to be buried along with their pets, and indeed, the cemetery hosts hundreds of people who want to remain close to their companions after death.
Pet cemeteries have long been ridiculed in this country as a sign of American excessiveness. Erroll Morris' 1978 documentary film about the industry, Gates of Heaven, shows many of the animal lovers who use pet cemeteries to be bizarre, and the film is treated as a comedy today. But it is clear that, in 1896 and in 2012, the bonds between human and non-human animal are powerful, and that for many, death does not sever them. It may even make them stronger.
Published by admin on 09/30/2012 16:10:01