Memento Mori Animalia
The human affinity
towards animals has existed as long as the two have shared each others domains. What childhood is complete without a fuzzy friend? What witch is functional without furry familiar? Pet companionship is almost a prerequisite for a tolerable elderly existence. A world without pets is inconceivable.
Many folks consider their pets an integral part of the family, referring themselves as their animals mother or father, endowing human personality traits onto their critters. And while the death of a pet can be devastating, the ceremonies surrounding most pet departures are generally informal. Large creatures are stuffed in plastic bags and tossed with Tuesdays rubbish. Furry mammals are administered lethal injection and incinerated at Animal Control shelters. But for some pet owners, ceremony is essential. The anguish resulting from the loss must culminate into something regal, tangible. More formal options are explored, and thus an elite cross-section of fuzzy mates are memorialized via funeral or post-mortem preservation.
Animal death ceremonies are rooted in antiquity. In ancient Egypt, a cat-revering society, eyebrows were shaved off to signify the mourning of a deceased feline and segments of land along the Nile were specifically delegated for animal interment. The Egyptians elevated embalming and mummification to art forms, practicing these arts on both human and animal corpses. Mummified cats, dogs, apes and oxen have been found in royal tombs alongside preserved human royalty and slaves. Royal dogs have been discovered in ornate sarcophagi fashioned to animal scale. Pets were primarily mummified (and often intentionally poisoned beforehand for said purpose) to serve members of the royal clan in the afterlife. The true art of pet sentimentality, however, sprung forth centuries later from the lace and wrought-iron framework of Victorian England.
Over the course of her lengthy life Queen Victoria (who reigned over British soil from 1837-1901) elevated mourning to high-fashion. When Prince Albert, her husband, succumbed to typhoid in 1861, the Queen essentially remained in mourning till the end of her days, some forty years. The Queens full-black attire and rigid code of ritualistic etiquette fueled a societal mourning subculture. Her mort rituals went so far as to extend to animals.
Queen Victoria designated the grounds surrounding Windsor Castle as resting place for her horses and dogs. The epitaph of her beloved spaniel Dash reads: His attachment was without selfishness, his playfulness without malice. His fidelity without deceit. The Queens royal birds were even preserved, by James Gardner, a historically notable taxidermist. Taxidermy as a means of animal preservation prospered during the Victorian era. No civilized Victorian home was without its collection of curious, preserved pets; these became popular parlor pieces and glass cabinet displays. Many practitioners ventured into the wild to shoot animals in order to meet the growing demand. Henry Ward, a Victorian naturalist who kept shop of Wards of London was nineteenth-century Londons most famous and prosperous taxidermist. Taxidermy, which has its roots in sixteenth century Europe, involves fitting an animals skin over an artificial body or mold. The deceased animal is gutted and skinned, whereupon the skin and fur are thoroughly cleaned, chemically treated with fixatives, preservatives, etc., then fitted over the demy-body. The animal is subsequently posed and mounted to a base (i.e. wooden plaque, bell-jar, tree branch). Taxidermy, like embalming, requires both skill and artistry, and eventually fell out of vogue as a result of wildlife preservation laws and shifts in cultural attitudes. Unlike taxidermy, however, the appeal of burial has proved universal and timeless.
Burial is an emotionally evocative, stark process. The act of interment holds a sense of finality not present in taxidermy trophies. Committing something to ground is an act of both physical and mental departure. Though semblances of pet graveyards have existed for hundreds of years, garden-style pet cemeteries did not emerge into the public sphere until the late nineteenth/ early twentieth century.
More than five-hundred pet cemeteries exist today in the US alone. Hartsdale Pet Cemetery (New York), founded in 1896, ranks oldest and most prestigious of its kind and serves as an example of the height of Victorian pet sentimentality. Hartsdale contains the remains of over seventy-thousand pets. Its three-acre lot is blanketed with verdant, manicured lawns and floral color-bursts. An eclectic variety of headstones are displayed. Some are upright, gray-speckled granite markers, others more rustic, plywood concoctions. Included in the mix is animal shaped statuary, planters, and a panoply of lawn ornaments. Hartsdales most extravagant monument is one acquisitioned prior to World War I by a Mrs. F. Walsh eccentric wife of an East-coast millionaire. The tomb, erected c.1914 for $25,000 (an enormous sum by period standards), houses the Walshs five pets. Its inscription reads: My dear little true love Hearts, who would lick the hand that had no food to offer.
Hartsdale is home to famous show dogs, Hollywood movie dogs, and celebrity-owned animals, including those of Diana Ross, Elizabeth Arden, Mariah Carey, and former U.S. vice president James Sherman. Approximately 850-1000 pets are interred annually. Major, a Victorian-era spaniel extraordinaire who expired in 1899, is one of the more noteworthy four-legged residents. According to historical accounts, Major was sealed in a satin-lined casket with a viewing window, fitted with a solid gold collar, and buried amidst a crowd of mourners. Mourning accoutrements such as frilly burial garb were associated with both human and animal death during the Victorian era. In the same vein of human death souvenirs, daguerreotypes of deceased animals and fur-crafted hair work memorabilia were commissioned by pet owners as well.
Varied are the reasons people select to inter pets. Sentiment and grief cannot be quantified. Some of Hartsdales pets have been buried with fanfare, in the name of national honor. One of the graveyards most pronounced landmarks is its War Dog Memorial, erected circa World War I to honor dogs who served in battle. The solid bronze, ten-foot high monument is topped with a canine cloaked in a Red-Cross blanket. A bronze helmet and canteen rest at his feet. The inscription reads: Dedicated to the memory of the war dog. Erected by public contributors, by dog lovers to mans faithful friend, for the valiant services rendered in World War, 1914-1918. This memorials sentiment extends to other service pets, such as police and seeing-eye dogs. A more recent monument with similar appeal is one honoring federal dogs affiliated with the Oklahoma City bombing search-and-rescue missions. The following words are etched on its sleek surface: Dedicated to the canines and their trainers who so nobly served as part of the federal emergency management task force urban search and rescue mission in Okalahoma City in April, 1995. Hartsdale hosts an annual tribute to war and service dogs.
Modern pet mourning is a multi-faceted industry complete with products, price-lists, and plans. Burial price tags can easily run into the thousands of dollars, as caskets are varied and priced according to construction material and the pets size and weight. Lot and monument fees also factor into the overall equation. The opportunity to view the pet in a private room prior to burial is a crucial part of modern animal interment. For the last encounter is always the most memorable.
Most pet owners opt against the high cost of burial, however. Cremation is a more popular, economical choice that satisfies pet owners who elect to keep their pets, in one form or another, close at bay (cremation is also a growing trend in Western, human funerary practices, particularly in urban areas). Cremation, like burial, involves quite, contemplative time with the deceased prior to the act. Remains are returned to owner in a decorative box with an accompanying certificate. Many pet cemeteries provide owners the opportunity to scatter a pets cremains with ashes of other animals at on-site memorial gardens. Though an uncommon practice, some pet owners elect to bury their animals cremated remains (vs. an intact corpse) in a cemetery plot. The variety of urns on todays market is seemingly endless, ranging in material from ceramic to bronze, brass, pewter, sterling silver, granite, onyx, marble, wood, etc. (custom nameplates and engravings are additional touches). Pet mourning memorabilia includes gifts for the bereaved as well, i.e. angel pins, pet tags, gift baskets, sympathy cards, and photo mattes.
Burial and cremation are the popular, conventional choices in the realm of pet funerals. Other, more eclectic options exist for those not content with mainstream choices. In taxidermy, for instance, the pet is transformed into a decorative object, considerably more concrete and animated than cremated remains. This animated quality is even more pronounced in the bizarre phenomenon of freeze-drying. Though William Hyde introduced freeze-drying in c. 1813 London, it was American-born Alan Anger, who created the compact, affordable freeze-dryer in the early 1990s that is currently used to immortalize pets on the mass market. Freeze-drying, like taxidermy, is a process that initially consists of removing the pets internal organs. With both methods, the end goal is the transformation of the deceased into a fixed, permanent, three-dimensional snap-shot of itself during the height of life. Taxidermy is highly invasive and messy, utilizing myriad tools and harsh chemicals. Freeze-drying is considered cleaner and constitutes the primary method in which taxidermists make their income.
In freeze drying, the pet is placed in a vacuum-packed chamber, that draws moisture out of its tissue. One of the most pronounced benefits is that the animals shape retained. Eyes are removed (due to high water content) and replaced with glass or marble versions. Pet owners select the animals final pose, be it a reclining or a more adventurous pounce. Freeze-drying is well-suited to natural matter in that if done correctly, the furs original luster is retained (if done half-heartedly, however, the specimen will shrink and deform). The draw-back is the wait-period, as the process can take weeks to months. Nonetheless, many grieving animal owners, including those of the celebrity irk, insist upon this freeze-drying method. On a side note, The Museum of Death in Los Angeles, California houses some of Hollywoods most infamous freeze-dried critters, including Liberaces dogs and Jayne Mansfields tiny pooch (the one mangled alongside her in the legendary car-crash). Bereaved pet owners with the inclination to freeze-dry are in a class apart from the burying kind.
An even more bizarre method of pet-preservation sprung up in recent times is the phenomenon of pet boards. A pet boards is a life-sized, wooden or paper cut-out of a pet (modeled after life-sized cardboard cut-outs of celebrities like the Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis Presley, Darth Vader, etc. cut-outs sold on the side of the rode and at novelty shops). Owners provide the favored photo used as the base for the board. Pet boards are clean, light-weight, and more interactive than standard photos. They are considered less disturbing and offensive than freeze-dried pets. Pet boards are merely a recent addition to the world of products peddled to bereaved pet owners. Therapists, support groups, self-help books, hotlines, and holidays (National Pet Memorial Day is September 13) exist solely to quell pet-related sorrows. Comfort can be taken in the knowledge that Monday evening (7:00 PM US Pacific time, 10:00 PM Eastern) is a global, candle-lighting pet memorialization night known as The Candle Ceremony.The building of both physical and virtual shrines, complete with candles, flowers, and testimonials, are among the more recent trends in pet sentimentality. A particularly poignant occurrence is the expressed, written sentiment to have ones own ashes eventually mixed in and scattered with their pets cremated remains.
Though a specific date cannot be attributed to the beginnings of pet mourning, it was the spirit of Queen Victoria that prompted the societal mourning mania that trickled down to the animal realm. Pet owners, en masse, acknowledged their irreparable loss by imparting ritual onto their critters demise. The sloping arches of loss were drenched in tears and fitted with black crepe. Sentimentalists adorned themselves and their dead pets in ribbons and jewels. It was only logical that those who grieved for friends and relatives extended the same courtesy to their pets. Thus, it became crucial to commission artifacts and epitaphs. Though much of the fanfare and ornamentation of the Victorian aesthetic is missing from modern pet mourning, the sentiment remains. Pet-owners still go to great lengths to remember animals as clearly illustrated by the increasing popularity of freeze-drying, cremation, and pet burial.
International Association of Pet Cemeteries
A non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of pet cemeteries everywhere׆. Website contains membership and historical information.
Website for bereaved pet owners. Support/chats/advice/poetry. One can post tribute for their deceased pet(s).