A dying breed

The tombstones of 1,000 pets tell a very human story

From Victorian burials to ashes sent to space, how we honor a pet's life reflects human ideals.

Originally Published: 
Britain's oldest pet cemetery
E. Tourigny

'Poor Cherry. Died April 28. 1881.’

Short and sweet, this epitaph can be found engraved on a small tombstone in London's Hyde Park. It marks the last resting place of Cherry, a Maltese Terrier — one of 300 pets interred in Hyde Park’s pet cemetery. But while death comes for us all, Cherry was unique: She was the first pet to be interred in what is now considered the first dedicated pet cemetery in the United Kingdom.

Pet cemeteries like the one in Hyde Park are not the ghoulish sites imagined in the infamous Stephen King novel. Rather, they may offer a unique insight into our own pasts, our sense of spirituality, and our evolving relationship with animals.

Eric Tourigny, a zooarchaeologist and lecturer at Newcastle University, recently analyzed the Hyde Park pet cemetery and three other similar sites in the U.K. His interest in pet cemeteries sparked in 2014 on encountering a 19th-century back-garden dog burial in Toronto, Canada. He tells Inverse that after coming across this dog, he began researching how people historically treated their pets after they died. He realized that despite humankind's close relationship with animals, the first public pet cemeteries appeared in the late 1800s.

Tourigny used methods initially developed to catalog and investigate human cemeteries to document more than 1,000 animal headstones erected between the 1880s and the 1980s. This century of burials charts a cultural transformation in how we feel about animals, the findings suggest — one that resulted in pets being viewed as family members, and people publicly believing in a pet afterlife.

The results of his study were published Monday in the journal Antiquity.

Heavenly pets — How we mourn reflects societal norms — and aspirations. In the Victorian period, which spanned from 1837 to 1901, mourning traditions followed a highly structured system of etiquette. Grieving became more of a public exercise, and graves became increasingly elaborate.

Pets were apparently no exception. Tourigny notes that, overall, many of the gravestones emphasize and describe the attributes of a particular pet. But these epitaphs say more about what people valued and looked for in a pet than they do about the animals themselves. Case in point is the presentation of the Victorian pets.

“The Victorian pet cemeteries often referenced values like obedience and fidelity, which were themselves core Victorian ideals,” he says.

Pet graves at Hyde Park.

E. Tourigny

But these Victorian tombstone inscriptions — sentiments like “Our Dear Wee Butcha” and “Darling Fluff” — lack explicit references to an afterlife. By the mid-20th century, more and more epitaphs explicitly expressed a wish by the owner to be reunited with their pet in heaven. The why behind the shift goes back to societal norms.

“I suspect many people believed or hoped they would be reunited with their beloved pets during and prior to the Victorian period; however, it just wasn’t socially acceptable to voice this idea,” Tourigny says.

“What we are seeing is that a few people dared to express feelings of hope for a reunion in the 19th century and then, as the 20th century progressed and society was becoming increasingly secular, it then became more acceptable to voice alternative beliefs such as that of a shared afterlife between animals and people.”

Tourigny's study highlights another trend — that of pets described as family. He explains that identifying the family relationship was a common practice in Victorian interment. Many family members shared gravestone and burial plots, and relationships were spelled out on markers.

Gravestone design examples from the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, a pet cemetery in East London.

E. Tourigny

But pets were not allowed to be buried with people, so they could not be included in the graveside family tree. The first pet cemetery tombstones didn’t initially include details suggesting the pet was considered a family member. But these references increase after World War II, along with a rise in using family surnames on pet gravestones.

Tourigny notes that in the 21st century, there’s an increase in the number of jurisdictions that allow for co-burial of humans and animals.

“Therefore, the rules governing what you can and cannot do are equally important in interpreting these gravestones,” he says. “It will be interesting to see what those shared gravestones look like and what they say about how people perceive their relationship with pets.”

The future of pet death — This research focused on pet cemeteries in the United Kingdom, but Tourigny is interested in learning more about the similarities and differences between those and others in the world.

Many of the first public pet cemeteries across western Europe and North America appeared around the same time, but some exist in countries where Christianity does not play such an overt role in traditions. The Presidio Pet Cemetery in San Francisco, California, and the Hiran Minar in Lahore, Pakistan both honor animals, but there are contrasts that reveal clear differences in social norms.

The Presidio Pet Cemetery in San Francisco, California.

Wikimedia Commons

The gravestones examined here chart clear societal change — one reflective of shifting human spirituality and human perception of animals. Our relationship with those forces is eternal in its own way — though, looking brighter for pets than it does for traditional faiths. In the United States, pet ownership is on the rise while Christianity is on the decline.

In fact, the relationship between humans and animals in life and in the afterlife is becoming ever closer. In 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law permitting cremated pet remains to be buried with their owners, asking “Who are we to stand in the way if someone’s final wish includes spending eternity with them?”

These and other, similar efforts provide “a new opportunity to commemorate human-animal relationships,” Tourigny says. Cremation also allows people to opt not to bury their pets, and spread their ashes in a special place, or keep them in an urn at home.

When Cherry died in 1881, her owners asked their friend to lay her to rest in his personal garden, which just so happened to be a corner of a beloved park. Today, you can send your pet’s ashes to space. Tomorrow, who knows — but what seems certain is that how we honor our pets' death will echo how we choose to live our lives.

Abstract: Pet cemeteries provide a unique opportunity to investigate the development of human-animal relationships, yet few archaeological studies of these cemeteries have been undertaken. This article presents an archaeological survey of gravestones at British pet cemeteries from the Victorian period to the present. These memorials provide evidence for the perceived roles of animals, suggesting the development of an often conflicted relationship between humans and companion animals in British society—from beloved pets to valued family members—and the increasing belief in animal afterlives. The results are discussed in the context of society’s current attitude towards animals and the struggle to define our relationships with pets through the mourning of their loss.

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