Long before photos of fluffy ‘fur babies’ dominated social media, and millennia before dogs were christened ‘man’s best friend’, domestic animals became an indispensable feature of human communities. These were not pets, though, but working animals: guards, hunters’ helpers, and resident pest control. When did our perception of these creatures shift from being, in essence, living tools to becoming cherished companions – and when did they make the final leap to being considered members of the family?
Dr Eric Tourigny, an archaeologist at Newcastle University, has uncovered thought-provoking – and frequently poignant – evidence of how these emotional bonds evolved, through studying one particular expression of our relationship with domestic animals: the pet cemetery. According to his research (recently published in Antiquity journal), epitaphs on over 1,000 gravestones paint a vivid picture of how, over the course of around a century, animals took an increasingly prominent position in our households, and in their owners’ hearts.
The archaeology of pets
The history of human–animal cohabitation is still being pieced together, but archaeological evidence suggests that our relationship with dogs began c.15,000 years ago (see CA 301), while cats joined us around 6,000 years later (CA 318). What is less easy to determine, though, is when we began to keep them purely for companionship. How do you spot a pet in the archaeological record? Dog burials are common finds on prehistoric and Roman sites, but do these represent the hygienic disposal of an animal that had reached the end of its working life, or an affectionate farewell to a canine chum? Conversely, does a less-formal act (in medieval contexts, dog and cat skeletons are more commonly found in rubbish heaps) convey a lack of care for the animal in life, or people acting in accordance with Christian teachings which held that animals had no souls and therefore did not require funerary rites?
Burials containing the remains of both humans and animals are similarly hard to interpret – why do we imagine that a cat or dog included in a grave might represent a beloved pet accompanying their owner to the afterlife, but the same assumption is not made about the 30 or so early medieval horse burials known in Britain, or the (unique in Europe) discovery of a 6th-century woman in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Oakington, just outside Cambridge, who shared her grave with a cow, both of them lying peacefully on their sides and nestled back to back (CA 285)?
As far as we can tell, Eric suggests, pet-keeping as we understand it began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – and, with it, more public expressions of grief when these animals died. During this period, we see small numbers of elegies and epitaphs dedicated to deceased animals published in local papers – these were generally satirical in tone, but also addressed topics that, while still controversial, were becoming increasingly widely discussed: questions of the morality of keeping animals, of how they should be treated, and whether they have souls. Although these publications often had political undertones, people were clearly feeling deeper attachments to the animals who shared their homes.
Elite households of the time staged small funerals for their pets, and erected memorials to them in their gardens. Among them was the poet Byron, who kept a regular menagerie during his life: most famously, he shared his student digs with a tame bear, but he also had a fox, a badger, and monkeys, as well as a Newfoundland dog, Boatswain, who succumbed to rabies in 1808. Byron nursed the stricken hound in his final days and, after Boatswain’s death, built a grand tomb (larger than the one that the poet would eventually occupy) on his estate at Newstead Abbey. The monument was adorned with a typically poetic epitaph, which concludes: ‘To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise,/ I never knew but one – and here he lies.’
The development of any kind of formal cemetery in this country, however, did not begin until decades later. In 1881, the gatekeeper of London’s Hyde Park was visited by the owners of a Maltese terrier called Cherry, requesting a favour. Their dog had recently died, and as they had so many fond memories of walking with Cherry in the park, they wondered if they could bury their pet within its bounds. The sympathetic gatekeeper offered them a spot in his private garden – but Cherry would not remain alone for long. Shortly afterwards, a Yorkshire terrier was rushed to the gatekeeper’s lodge, having been struck by a carriage in the park. The dog did not survive, and was also laid to rest in the lodge garden. This was not just any terrier, however: it belonged to the wife of the Duke of Cambridge, and this royal connection seems to have sparked a new fashion.
Over the next two decades, almost 500 little gravestones sprang up in the increasingly crowded garden, forming Britain’s first dedicated pet cemetery. While most of its occupants were dogs, a small number of cats and several birds are also known to have been buried there. Some of their names are strikingly familiar to modern eyes – Snap, Spot, Rex, Nipper – while others, among them Scum, Pomme de Terre, Fattie, and Freekie, are more unusual. Other inscriptions hint at intriguing stories now lost in time – none more so than the epitaph of the unfortunate Balu, who in 1899 was ‘poisoned by a cruel Swiss’ in Berne, before being brought to London for burial. The garden eventually ran out of space and officially closed in 1903, though occasional interments did still take place in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1970s – most notably that of Ginger Blyth, a cat whose epitaph proudly decrees that this ‘king of pussies’ died in 1946 at the truly venerable age of 24 years and 7 months.
A sentimental society
To put the cemetery in its cultural context, the 19th century marked a watershed in human relationships with animals, coupled with increased concern for their well-being. In 1824, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded as the first animal-welfare society in the world, and proved a great philanthropic success. Princess Victoria became its patron in 1835, and after becoming queen she gave the organisation royal status, forming the RSPCA that we know today. The creation of dog shows (England’s first was held in Newcastle in 1859, while the more-formal annual event of Crufts began in 1886) and the Kennel Club (in 1873) reflect a flourishing public interest in canine companions beyond working dogs.
Crucially, the Victorian era was a time both of unselfconscious sentimentality – making public expressions of love for pets, or grief at their loss, increasingly acceptable – and of transformative religious debate, as Darwin’s Theory of Evolution shook long-held Biblical teachings about human supremacy over all other creatures. Together, these created the perfect environment for the evolution of dedicated pet cemeteries – and this phenomenon soon spread beyond our shores. The oldest animal burial ground in the USA, Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in upstate New York, was founded in 1896, while the Cimetière des Chiens opened in Paris in 1899. But while the American cemetery had similarly impromptu origins to that in Hyde Park (a local vet offered a spot in his orchard to a grieving dog owner – since then, more than 70,000 dogs, cats, and other animals have been buried there), the French burial ground was a much more deliberate – and grand – undertaking. Beyond its elaborate art nouveau entrance, ornate monuments commemorate a diverse host of animals – the pets of the social elite, as well as more unusual occupants such as a tame lion and the Hollywood canine star Rin Tin Tin. Back in Britain, publicly accessible pet cemeteries spread throughout the 20th century – and Eric has set out to investigate what we can learn from them about our evolving attitudes to animals.
From man’s best friend to family
During his study (which was supported by a research grant from the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology), Eric examined four pet cemeteries, documenting 1,169 gravestones using the same systematic methods that archaeologists use for surveying human burial grounds. Two of these locations are in London: Hyde Park, and the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) cemetery, a large suburban burial ground in Ilford. (Recently restored thanks to a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant, this latter site was founded in the 1920s and includes a mixture of family pets and military animals awarded the Dickin Medal for gallantry in service.) The other two are in the Newcastle area: Northumberland Park in North Shields, where more than 200 animals have been buried since 1948, and Jesmond Dene Pet Cemetery, a tiny cluster of around 20 graves, the earliest of which dates to 1969.
These sites, which together span the late 19th century to the 1990s, were selected for their size and accessibility, and in each location Eric carefully recorded every extant gravestone, photographing their inscriptions and designs and, where the text was legible (some stones were toppled or buried, or too damaged or weathered to read), it has been transcribed. The resulting database suggests some clear shifts in how pets were commemorated across the c.100-year span, as well as giving fascinating insights into the evolution of a belief in an animal afterlife.
The earliest gravestones, all located in Hyde Park, are very simple, often bearing little more than the animal’s name and date of death, together with its owner’s initials. (This latter feature is a carry-over from human gravestones, which in the Victorian era were commonly marked with the name or initials of the commemorator who had commissioned the monument.) Among these relatively plain memorials were those of the graveyard’s very first occupants, named as ‘Poor Cherry’ and ‘Poor little Prince’ (according to a report from 1893; these memorials no longer survive). Some of the stones also carry short epitaphs, ascribing favoured Victorian values – fidelity, obedience, friendship – to the deceased pet. Just as the Victorians idealised children, there is a sense of inherent innocence in the animals being held up as a moral exemplar.
While the virtues extolled on pet memorials could seem allegorical, though, they do seem to stem from genuine grief. It is worth mentioning that the early 19th century witnessed a transformation in human funerary customs, too. As urban graveyards became dangerously overcrowded, a number of for-profit cemeteries sprang up on the outskirts of cities. There was a growing emphasis on the expectation that graves should remain undisturbed in perpetuity, Eric notes, and in the upper echelons of society people began to spend more on funerals, erecting increasingly ostentatious gravestones adorned with Neo-Classical motifs: a display of the commemorator’s wealth as much as of depth of feeling. By contrast, while pet cemeteries also offered opportunities for public displays of grief, sites like Hyde Park are striking in their simplicity – their rows of uniform small gravestones tucked away in a discreet corner seem a far cry from conspicuous consumption.
This conclusion is supported, Eric suggests, by the wording of some of the longer epitaphs, which mourn the loss of clearly well-loved companions. ‘In loving memory of dear Chin Chin, a perfect dog’ reads one inscription from 1894. A memorial to Ruby Heart (d. 1897) attests that ‘for seven years we were such friends’, while Bob (d. 1900) was a ‘beloved and devoted companion’ and Topsey (d. 1894) was a ‘loving friend’. Some go further: we read of Chum (d. 1900), ‘my faithful and loving poodle for ten years’, whose grief-stricken owner adds ‘so lonely without my doggie’. Zoe (d. 1892) was ‘as deeply mourned as ever dog was mourned, for friendship rare by her adorned’, and a stone raised in 1887 grieves ‘Darling Dolly: my sunbeam, my consolation, my joy’. In commemorations to pets like ‘lovely, gentle little Jane’ who ‘brought the sunshine into our lives, but took it away with her’, it is clear that these were animals that were valued for more than their usefulness as guard dogs or mousers – their owners viewed them as friends.
At this stage, though, there was still a clear distinction in status: while these pets were increasingly integral members of their household, they occupied a liminal space not equal to the humans who shared their home. Inscriptions make frequent reference to ownership, speaking of ‘my doggie’, ‘our Blenheim’, or ‘my poodle’, and carry occasional mentions of a master or ‘sorrowing mistress’. Within a couple of generations, however, there seems to have been a sea change in attitudes. When Eric examined gravestones at the other sites, dating from the mid-20th century, he saw an increased use in familial pronouns – instead of ‘master’ or ‘mistress’, commemorators like that of Cooch (buried in Ilford in 1952) were referring to themselves as ‘mummy’. This trend endured: another Ilford grave pays tribute to Snoopy (d. 1991), including the following inscription: ‘Goodnight, darling Snoops, never goodbye. Mum and Dad’. We also see the use of family surnames on gravestones – for example, ‘Lassie Robson’ (d. 1977) at Jesmond Dene, and ‘Tiny Mills’ (d. 1954). While it is not yet clear precisely when this shift took place (Eric plans to widen his research to examine patterns at other pet cemeteries across the UK), the subtext is undeniable. These pets were not only regarded as friends, they had become fully fledged members of the family.
Animals in the afterlife
Another interesting theme identified during the study was the emergence and evolution of ideas about whether pets could enter the afterlife. As mentioned above, traditional Christian belief holds that only humans can pass through the Pearly Gates – something that Byron railed against in his poetic epitaph to Boatswain: ‘Deny’d in heaven the Soul he held on earth./ While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,/And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.’ Victorian sensibilities, however, imagined the hearafter rather differently, Eric writes, conceiving of a heaven that resembled the family home. Could this domestic vision include pets? While thoughts of a future reunion would surely have been appealing to a grieving owner, they went against social convention, and there seems to have been a certain hesitancy in expressing these desires too openly.
Some sought justification in the Bible itself, quoting verses that could be interpreted as suggesting that animals have souls. Four stones in Hyde Park’s pet cemetery cite Luke 12:6 (‘Not one of them is forgotten before God’), one has Psalms 50:10 (‘Every beast of the forest is mine, saith the Lord’), and one quotes Romans 8:21 (‘the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God’). Others tentatively express only a vague hope that their pets might rejoin them after death, such as the owner of Grit (d. 1900), who yearningly writes: ‘Could I think we’d meet again, it would lighten half my pain’. On the gravestone of Orphie (d. 1897), we find ‘Au revoir, cheri… si dieu veut’ (‘Until we meet again, dear one… if God wishes’). The owners of Bobbit (d. 1901) dare to be more positive, however. To their ‘most devoted friend… darling sweetheart’, they write: ‘When our lonely lives are over and our spirits from this earth shall roam, we hope he’ll be there waiting to give us a welcome home’.
Moving into the second half of the 20th century, though, such beliefs seem to have become more socially acceptable. References to the afterlife become more common, such as on the gravestone of the ‘brave little cat’ Denny (d. 1952, buried in Ilford), whose epitaph reads: ‘God bless until we meet again’. Christian symbols are also much more prevalent in the PDSA burial ground, a stark contrast to Hyde Park where only two memorials are marked with crosses. (It should be noted that neither of the Newcastle-area cemeteries have religious symbols either, but this is due to restrictions on permitted imagery in the council-owned sites). As for the present day, pet cemeteries still exist but interment in a formal burial ground has been eclipsed by cremation, which has become by far the most popular practice. New material ways of commemorating pets continue to emerge, Eric notes – and, with them, new ways to understand our relationship with the animals that share our lives.
E Tourigny (2020) ‘Do all dogs go to heaven? Tracking human–animal relationships through the archaeological survey of pet cemeteries’, Antiquity 1-16; the paper can be read at https://doi.org/ 10.15184/aqy.2020.191.