Do All Dogs Go To Heaven? Pet Cemeteries and Belief in an Animal Afterlife
The loss of a pet is always tragic. However the way we have treated our pets after their death and the beliefs we hold about what happens after our cherished animal is gone have changed over the years. A researcher in England decided to explore pet cemeteries to see how these solemn sites reflect our relationships with our animal companions and how these bonds have transformed over 100 years.
Exploring Pet Cemeteries in England
Dr. Eric Tourigny, of the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Newcastle University, UK and the author of the new study published in the journal Antiquity, has ventured into an area that few archaeologists have considered exploring before – pet cemeteries. While many scholars have looked at the changing trends of human cemeteries over the years, Dr. Tourigny decided that an examination of the animal equivalent could be enlightening as well.
He has looked at over 1,000 animal headstones spanning 100 years of the existence of pet cemeteries in Newcastle and London, starting with the earliest graves from the opening of the first public pet cemetery in 1881 and finishing with pet gravestones in the 1980s. Dr. Tourigny told Ancient Origins how he became interested in studying pet cemeteries:
“I was working on an archaeological collection from 19th-century Toronto which contained a back-garden dog burial that intrigued me. As a Zooarchaeologist, I study animal bones recovered from archaeological sites to reconstruct past human-animal relationships. After coming across this dog, I started researching how people historically treated their pets after they died and that's when I first stumbled upon the fact that the first public pet cemeteries appeared in the late 1800s. I was surprised by how recent this was and how many of the gravestones still survive.”
Surviving gravestones from Hyde Park Pet Cemetery. (photograph by E. Tourigny, taken with permission from The Royal Parks/ Antiquity)
Changing Views on an Animal Afterlife
Dr. Tourigny’s analysis has revealed that that the belief in a pet afterlife has risen since the Victorian era which reflects on changing human-animal relationships, with pets moving from being described as companions or friends in the Victorian period to being more like family members in people’s minds in the 20th century. This change in perspective would have often been in conflict with social norms in that period. Personal beliefs, societal norms, and publicly acceptable forms of grief for the death of a pet were often at odds.
In the 18th century, people were also publishing small elegies for their pets in local newspapers. Although these were mostly satirical, Tourigney writes that every so often someone would “touch on controversial topics, such as whether or not animals had souls and the morality of pet keeping.”
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By the Victorian period , many people believed that their afterlife would resemble their home – complete with pets, there are few gravestones that make clear references to the pets and their owners meeting again after death. As Dr. Tourigny writes in his paper, “As with human burial grounds, pet cemeteries represent locations where social relationships are negotiated and reproduced in the gravestones—whether intentionally or not.”
Gravestones at one of the pet cemeteries. (E. Tourigny/ Antiquity)
So even if someone wanted to show their great affection for their deceased pet, in the early days of pet cemeteries, that would have been frowned upon by society. People were struggling with the loss of a cherished companion and religious doctrines set the rules. Some of them wanted to reunite with their pet in the afterlife, but also wondered if animals actually have an afterlife or even souls. They may have felt that the pet was a part of their family, but society may have disagreed with placing animals at that level of importance. Dr. Tourigny explained that these beliefs are reflected on the animal gravestones, and,
“the majority of earlier gravestones do not mention reference to heaven or an afterlife but may refer to death via the metaphor of sleep (e.g., 'here lies...' or 'rest in peace'). This was a common metaphor also used in human cemeteries at the time that likens death to the impermanent state of sleep, where an awakening will take place. The metaphor is vague enough to suggest a reunion without explicitly stating so.”
Dr. Tourigny also provided an example of one pet owner who did write of their wish for a reunion with their pet Bobbit. That person wrote, “When our lonely lives are o’er and our spirits from this earth shall roam, we hope he’ll be there waiting to give us a welcome home.”
Bobbit’s gravestone. (Photograph by Eric Tourigny, taken with permission of The Royal Parks)
From Friends to Family
Once people had expanded on the simple graves that would only contain the pet’s name and the date of death, sometimes preceded by ‘In memory of,’ they began to refer to the animals simply as pets, friends, or companions. Phrases such as ‘In memory of my dear pet’ or ‘A faithful friend and constant companion’ became more common. But by the 20th century, these views of a shared heaven become more evident and more epitaphs express the owners’ beliefs that they and their pet will reunite in the afterlife.
Wooden cross grave markers characteristic of the Buena Vista pet cemetery, Leicestershire. ( K. Bridger/ Antiquity)
Another later addition is the usage of family surnames on pet gravestones after the Second World War. However, it is interesting that in the beginning of that practice, some people would place the surname in parentheses or quotation marks, “as if to acknowledge they are not full members of the family,” according to Dr. Tourigny. People also expressed this familial relationship by referring to themselves as the ‘sorrowing mistress’, or later in the mid-20th century as ‘Mummy’, ‘Dad’, ‘Nan’ or ‘Auntie.’
While this information is insightful, Dr. Tourigny says that that most surprising discovery he made in his research is actually “how many people are interested by these spaces and continue to engage with them.” Tourigny says that:
“Historic pet cemeteries are often located in out-of-the-way corners of public parks and I often found people casually walking among the gravestones to pause and give their time to animals they never met. Upon seeing me carefully record these gravestones, many would engage in conversation and happily tell me about their own pets (current or previously passed). It struck me that pet cemeteries are emotional spaces, not only for those who buried their animals there long ago, but also for those currently cherishing their time with pets.”
Example of the use of body stones, kerbs, and headstones to resemble the appearance of a bed in Hyde Park Pet Cemetery. (Photograph by E. Tourigny, taken with permission from The Royal Parks/ Antiquity)
Public Pet Cemeteries Provide Places to Demonstrate Grief
The early pet cemeteries really were “out-of-the-way.” A press release for the new Antiquity paper says that the “first public pet cemetery was established in the UK in 1881 when the owner of a recently deceased dog called Cherry asked the gatekeeper of Hyde Park if they could be buried there.” That dog was buried in the gatekeeper’s personal garden, but over the next few decade’s Cherry was joined by hundreds of other dogs. In other areas, cats were also buried in the pet cemeteries.
Public pet cemeteries eventually spread across Britain, but the four sites of focus for Dr. Tourigny were the original Hyde Park cemetery, The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals cemetery in Ilford, and Jesmond Dene and Northumberland Park in Newcastle. He recorded inscriptions and photographed gravestones and found that most of the gravestones were erected between 1890 and 1910, and between 1945 and 1980 – which allowed the researcher to compare the style, wording, and apparent beliefs of the grieving owners.
Gravestones at one of the pet cemeteries. (E. Tourigny/ Antiquity)
The existence of the pet cemeteries opened a new, public place for people to mourn the loss of their pets. As Dr. Tourigny writes in his paper, “While some scholars describe the act of burial and commemoration itself as evidence for belief in animal souls, the pet cemetery ‘movement’ also developed out of a need to mourn lost companions in a public manner alongside other bereaved people.” He also explained the mixed emotions and wishes that people may have held about laying their pet to rest in a pet cemetery:
“The act of burial and erecting a gravestone is an important part of the grieving process and always was. The language appearing on some of these stones reflects the heartbreak and sense of loss. Yet, there is also evidence people were uncomfortable in expressing this sense of loss publicly. These are the same emotions that people feel today following the loss of their beloved animals. The challenges in coping with the loss of a pet remain similar as many today feel ashamed of their feelings of grief and loneliness as others who never experienced the loss of a pet may not understand them. Thankfully, there are charitable organisations out there providing support networks for people struggling with grief (e.g., the BlueCross in the UK).”
Before there were pet cemeteries, some elite households were known to have held small funerals and erected memorials to their deceased pets in their private gardens. At first, public pet funerals or ceremonies were controversial , in part because people questioned the “frivolous expenses” used to hold a funeral and buy a gravestone for an animal when so many people lived in poverty and were being buried in pauper's graves.
However, things have changed, as Dr. Tourigny noted to Ancient Origins, “There are definitely changes in the way we commemorate animals over time and in some respects, there are increasing similarities in the way we bury and commemorate humans and animals. For example, it is now becoming legal in many countries to bury humans and animals together in the same cemetery . Of course, this does not necessarily mean animals are being humanised or treated like humans in life, but it does suggest a change in the way societies understand the relationship between humans and animals.”
Dr. Tourigny told us that the next step in his research is to explore this theme “further in time and space and examine whether these trends are happening at the same time throughout the country (E.g., urban vs. rural areas) and whether or not we are seeing similar trends in other countries.” Pet cemeteries were also starting to appear in western Europe and North America in the late 19th/early 20th century, and Dr. Tourigny would like to explore “if human-animal relationships are commemorated in similar ways between countries and what differences may suggest about pet keeping practices around the world.”
Dr. Tourigny’s paper is now published in the journal Antiquity, and The Royal Parks and Dr Tourigny will be providing a free virtual tour of the Hyde Park pet cemetery on Wednesday, Oct 28th. For more info: https://www.royalparks.org.uk/whats-on/upcoming-events/the-secret-pet-cemetery-of-hyde-park
Through the catacombs and boneyards we build for our dead ancestors, we foster a type of immortality. Although human remains do not last forever, we can still view ancient burial chambers, catacombs, cemeteries crypts, and other places of the dead, giving insight into the living past. Visit where the dead rest in this special Ebook from Ancient Origins, here.
Top Image: Gravestone designs differ in pet cemeteries – these are at the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals pet cemetery in Ilford: left) Whiskey (d. 1987); right) Billy (d. 1951). Source: E. Tourigny/ Antiquity