Shifts In Pet Cemetery Practices Reflect Our Changing Relationship With Animals

How we deal with our dead says a lot about how we felt about them, human or animal. E. Tourigny/Antiquity 2020

The loss of a pet can be a remarkably difficult time and in the modern age many of us need to say a more significant farewell to our furry, feathered, or scaly friends than a quick visit to the bathroom for Mr Bubbles. Pet cemeteries are by no means a modern invention and a recent study published in the journal Antiquity looked at more than 1,000 pet gravestones in Britain to investigate how they reflect our changing relationship with our animals and cultural practices surrounding death and grieving.

It’s not uncommon to look to the dead for insights on the living and archaeologists have long recognized the value of historical cemeteries for their ability to shine a light on historic practices of bereavement and commemoration, revealing complex social relationships between humans and, as in this example, animals. To find out more about the latter, Dr Eric Tourigny conducted an archaeological survey of gravestones at pet cemeteries from the Victorian period to the present, the first of its kind in analyzing the writing and symbolism on pet tombstones.

Pet gravestone vocabulary became increasingly sentimental as public displays of affection towards animals became more acceptable. E. Tourigny/Antiquity 2020

His findings supported the notion that, in the past, human’s relationship with animals was more perfunctory than affectionate, using animals for hunting or rodent control such as the Ship’s cat. Tourigny identifies the work of Charles Darwin as a turning point in the sentimentality towards animals, as we began to view them on more of a level pegging. Then, as the stiff upper lip of the pre-Victorian Britain ebbed away and showing affection for animals wasn’t so frowned upon, animal lovers were free to adoringly boop the snoot nationwide. The traditional funerary process of tossing carcasses in the river or selling them for their constituent parts no longer sat so easy with pet parents, and burying animals in the garden or laying them to rest in a dedicated public cemetery became more common, and so we arrive at pet cemeteries.

Across the pet cemeteries sampled, Tourigny and colleagues recorded the condition, design, and vocabulary used on pet gravestones, the latter of which revealed how animals were first considered as pets and later became friends and members of the family. Late 19th- and early 20th-century pet gravestones often included the names or initials of those who erected the stones, a practice that was common in human burial. Some of these referenced that they left in their wake a “sorrowing mistress” throughout the 20th century, but, by the mid-century, proper nouns began to be replaced with pronouns such as ‘Mummy’ and ‘Dad,’ showing how the relationship had grown familial.

This trend increased after the Second World War, as did the use of family surnames on pet gravestones. Some were evidently still fearful of a degree of mockery, however, as early adopters of pet surnames put them in parentheses as if to preempt the haters pointing out they were never a blood relative.

As Britain shifted towards viewing death through the metaphor of sleep, so too did pet gravestone designs. E. Tourigny/Antiquity 2020

Design was also revealing as Victorian era gravestones reflected a desire to see the death of a pet through the metaphor of sleep. Stones seen in London’s Hyde Park pet cemetery mimic human burial plots with kerbstones, raised body stones, and a headstone giving the appearance of a bed. The language also changed accordingly, with engravings such as ‘Rest in Peace’ and ‘Here lies…” growing in popularity. 

“As our relationship with pets continues to change, so do burial practices,” writes Tourigny in the paper. “Cremation services are becoming increasingly popular, and new forms of material culture related to animal death and commemoration are emerging.

“The relationships that people develop with animals are partly a product of the cultural milieu in which they form. While people’s reactions to animal death have varied across time and space, the treatment of the animal body and the material culture associated with animal death and commemoration highlight the human perceptions of these relationships.”

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