Pet cemetery headstones tell us about our evolving relationship with companion animals

Dr Eric Tourigny, Lecturer in Historical Archaeology at Newcastle University began a survey into the memorials written on the headstones of dogs at UK’s pet cemeteries in January 2019. On 9 January 2019 he asked the public for help in producing the first database of animal memorials in the UK. He wanted to catalogue the design and inscriptions of the many memorials as a way of reflecting the evolving relationship between people and their pets since the first pet cemetery opened in London’s Hyde Park in 18811, where more than 500, mostly dogs, are buried. Since then pet cemeteries opened throughout the UK but latterly cremation has taken over from burial. Although of course many companion animals are buried in back gardens (backyards in America).

Hyde Park pet cemetry
Hyde Park pet cemetry. Photo in public domain.
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Tourigny wanted to “create a sort of virtual book of remembrance that helps us understand the historical significance of the relationship between humans and dogs”.

It appears that before people started burying their beloved companion animals they threw them away. He says that many people “would throw the bodies in the river or the rubbish, or sell them for skin or meat”. The relationship between pet and person was far less close than it is today. Few people thought about burying their cat or dog in a dedicated public, pet cemetery.

In America, the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery & Crematory is the first pet cemetery in the United States. It started when a woman asked a Manhattan veterinarian to give her dog a formal burial. He was sympathetic towards the request and allowed her dog to be buried in his apple orchard north of the city. This started a trend to the point where there are now 70,000 dogs, cats and other animals buried there.

Dr Tourigny’s study has become a useful contribution to understanding the changing relationship between humans and animals. He collected information and analysed it from 1,169 grave headstones from 1881 to 1991. He found that the inscriptions changed from rather dry straightforward statements such as “Darling Fluff” to ones which referred to a pet as a beloved friend and a member of the family such as “Our Darling Little ‘Bobbitt’ for Six Years Are Loving and Most Devoted Friend Who Passed Away on Jan 15 1901”.

Bobbit headstone
Bobbit headstone. Photo: Dr. ERIC TOURIGNY.

He noticed a change in attitude towards pets after World War I. Before 1910 less than 1% of the gravestones surveyed referred to a pet as a family member. Only six used surnames. After the First World War almost 20% described their companion animals as a family member and 11% used surnames i.e. the surnames of the humans. And at this time, noticeably, there were more cat graves. It appears that the relationship between humans and cats developed later than that of dogs. This reflects the earlier domestication of the dog compared to the cat. The dog is in advance of the cat in terms of the human-companion animal relationship.

The changes to the inscriptions on headstones is in line with the changes in the relationship between people and their pets in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There were more pet products, cat litter was developed allowing cats to live indoors and animal medicine became more sophisticated mirroring that of human medicine and treatments.

There was also a change towards the possibility of people meeting their deceased pets in the afterlife. Before 1910 only six gravestones had on them a religious symbol compared with the 104 or about 20% after World War II. Tourigny says that alluding to the fact that your companion animal went to heaven in 1910 would have been controversial. Nowadays there is a firm belief by many that they’ll meet their beloved companion animal over the rainbow bridge.

Tourigny puts the change in attitude partly down to Charles Darwin’s work on evolution and the Victorians. My personal view is that the world is becoming more civilised which is hard to believe sometimes. In line with that, people are becoming more enlightened about animal intelligence and more sensitive towards their welfare. We understand animals better and treasure their value more. Dogs are not just utilitarian, working animals but companions to love and entertain us. This inevitably leads to a stronger bond which in turn is reflected in the more tender inscriptions on headstones.

Pet cemeteries inevitably ran out of space and this problem was resolved in New York state when it was made legal for pets to be buried with their owners in human cemeteries. The then governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo said, “Who are we to stand in the way if someone’s final wish include spending eternity with them?”

As mentioned earlier, the modern trend is towards cremation. In May 2015, the BBC website published a page entitled, “The rising popularity of pet crematoriums and cemeteries”. At that time there were about 50 pet crematorium is in the UK.

1. The Hyde Park Cemetery was established when the owner of a Maltese terrier called Cherry ask the gatekeeper of Hyde Park if their dog could be buried there.

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