In a shady corner of a local park, a clutch of small stone markers lie almost forgotten. Sheltered by elderly sycamores, adorned by moss, framed by shrubs and wildflowers, the markers show the signs of age. Some are weather-beaten and eroded, others tilt in the ground. But these markers were placed here carefully and deliberately, to remember the lives of more than 200 companions. This is the pet cemetery; a quiet, moving place, that seems cut off from the frivolity of the rest of the park. A sad place, but also a special one, where the love of so many people for their companions converges.
There are heroes here. An Alsatian who detected land mines in Italy in WWII and another dog that was a Dunkirk veteran. Trixie Fox was rescued from the Normandy beaches, so it seems she was also a veteran, though her war record has been lost to time. But this isn’t just a place for war heroes, it’s a place for those creatures that become the small heroes of our lives. Our ‘faithful friends’, ‘loving protectors’ and ‘little pals’. There’s something poignant about reading their names – Laddie, Bop, Bushy, Scrappie, Billy Boy – and trying to imagine the proud and playful creatures that inhabited them. They are mainly cats and dogs, but there is also a fawn named Bambi and a tortoise called Monty. But it’s little Bop who always brings a lump to my throat – he seems to have only lived for a year, but is still remembered here.
The burial of pets has ancient roots. Animals were entombed and mummified in ancient Egypt. Hundreds of dogs were buried at Ashkelon in Israel in about the 5th Century BC. But it was in the 19th century that pet cemeteries became popular. There are pet cemeteries in Hyde Park, London, Hartsdale, New York and Paris, France that were begun in the 1800s. Ours was opened in 1948 and was in use until the 1980s when no space remained.
I have loved and lost many animal companions. There’s something particularly distressing about losing an animal which not everyone understands. Perhaps it’s because they don’t belong to us, but we’re entrusted to care for them for the briefest of times. Because they trust and stay faithful to us in a relationship that must, at times, be difficult for them to understand. Because our relationship with them is intimate, constant and usually simple.
The animals buried here are long gone. If anything haunts this place, it’s only the tender memories of those they left behind. Still, sometimes I imagine the pet cemetery when the park has emptied of people. I see the spirits of dogs and cats peeping out from the bushes in which they’ve been resting. Out they come, playful and energetic, pouring into the footpaths and fields of the park, leaving only silvery streaks of fur and ethereal yips in their wake.