Lynne Wallis looks at the fascinating tradition behind grieving our beloved pets and its evolution since the Victorian era
‘Wee Bobbit’, begins the touching inscription on the headstone of a small Victorian London grave. ‘In memory of our darling little Bobbit…….so lonely without our darling sweetheart’. The Dickensian sounding Bobbit was born in 1885 and passed away just six years later. A child who had perhaps tragically succumbed to diptheria or measles?
Bobbit was in fact the family dog whose owners believed as so many Victorians did in an afterlife, not just for themselves but for their pet pooches too. This loving family were convinced they would see their beloved Bobbit again. The inscription ends on a longing note ‘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’.
New research from Newcastle University on the changing nature of our relationships with our pets from the Victorian era onwards shows they began to be regarded as family members around the same time the UK’s first pet cemetery opened in 1881 in London’s Hyde Park. The role of both cats and dogs had already shifted beyond fulfilling a functional working role—with cats ‘employed’ for pest control and dogs mainly for security—to meeting an emotional need.
"From the Victorian era onwards, pets began to be regarded as family members"
Upper class Victorian households were the first to embrace their pets as part of the family according to historical archaeologist Dr Eric Tourigny, the author of the new research. Entitled ‘Do all dogs go to heaven? Tracking human-animal relationships through the archaeological survey of pet cemeteries’ the study explores not just the changing relationship between humans and their animals, but the Victorian belief that pets, like their owners, had an afterlife. “Only very affluent families could afford to have their dogs cremated and buried with elaborate headstones” says Tourigny. “The very first pet cemeteries would have the initials of the person who wrote the inscription in the bottom right hand corner. A little later, as those grieving the loss of a pet became more comfortable with expressing their emotions, you can see ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’ written there, and the dog will even have the family name and be for example ‘Spot Smith’. The Victorians grieved their pets as they would any other family member.”
"Upper class Victorian households were the first to embrace their pets as part of the family"
The trend for the belief in an afterlife for animals didn’t always sit well with some in the religious community, with household pets being given human burial rights occasionally causing uproar. During the 1880s an Edinburgh woman organized a full funeral procession and cemetery burial for her cat, and the crowd that gathered were so upset they dug up the deceased feline and smashed its grave. More secular inscriptions gained popularity as pet owners started to exercise caution about what they wrote on the headstone.
Burial in a pet cemetery isn’t and never was the exclusive preserve of cats and dogs—Dr Tourigny found a budgie’s headstone in London and a tortoise in Newcastle. “You don’t always know the species”, he explained. “Names such as Pussy and Fido make it easy, but other pets were part of the family too. There is a rumour of monkeys buried in the Hyde Park Cemetery.” Only around 1 per cent of all pets ended up in the cemeteries, as most grieving pet owners couldn’t afford the hefty fees.
Hyde Park’s first burial followed the death of an adored Maltese dog called Cherry whose owner used to walk her there daily, and who asked the park’s gatekeeper, a Mr Winbridge, if his dog could be buried in his personal garden. Until then, pet cemeteries were only popular in Germany. The kindly Winbridge agreed and over the next few decades hundreds more dogs joined Cherry. Over 1,000 burials took place before the cemetery became too full to take any more pets in 1976.
The comforting ‘sleep’ metaphor used on human headstones began to be used for pets too in the late Victorian era, and many of the animal graves at Hyde Park include a kerbstone and a headstone, so they look like a bed. ‘Rest in Peace’ or ‘Here lies’ were, as for humans, common engravings. One double canine grave headstone reads touchingly ‘We are only sleeping, Master’. Most pet owners buried their animals at home, but others sought public expressions of grief and loss, and by 1900 more pet cemeteries opened around Britain. There are now around 20 in operation according to the Association of Private Pet Cemeteries and Crematoria (APPCC) and an estimated 120 pet crematoria. Ilford pet cemetery opened in 1930 and has 467 pets buried there, while later cemeteries such as Northumberland Park in North Shields in the North East buried 210 pets from 1949 to 1988. “Aside from meeting a growing need, I suspect those that set them up realized they could make a few bob”, said Dr Tourigny.
The reference on headstones to pets as family members increased after the Second World War, with family names on pet gravestones becoming commonplace. Early adopters put the family name in parentheses or quotation marks. Were they acknowledging the pets weren’t full members of the family, or pre-emptively avoiding criticism? Tourigny isn’t sure. What he is definite about is that the Victorian era represents a watershed for human-pet relationships, marked by a growing discourse on animal welfare and the changing role of dogs in British society.
Many Victorians loved their pets so much they wanted to be buried with them. Some cemeteries allowed it, but it often ended unhappily for the cat or dog that ended up being euthanized before it’s time—graves couldn’t be dug up to add an animal’s body, so when the master passed away, it was the animal’s time to go too, even if it was fit and healthy. The trend died down after a few years, but began to re-emerge in the UK in the 1990s when pet ownership stared to rise, with the first recorded double pet-human burial in Lancashire in 1995. New Yorkers embraced the idea a little later, and in 2015 the city passed a law allowing pets to be buried alongside their owners.
"Many Victorians loved their pets so much they wanted to be buried with them"
Ilford Animal Cemetery in East London, which was part of the Newcastle University study, was opened by the PDSDA charity in the 1920s. Some 3,000 burials were carried out until it closed for new burials in the 1960s. It contains many beloved household pets, including Bruce Forsyth’s dog Rusty, but it is also the final resting place for some celebrated military animals that were awarded the Dickin Medal, often referred to as the animals’ Victoria Cross. The medal was given to animals that exhibited ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’ during WWII and subsequent conflicts. Some 32 pigeons are buried at Ilford, 18 dogs, 3 horses and a ‘heroic’ ship’s cat called Simon that served on board the HMS Amethyst during the Second World War.
As was the case when the first pet cemeteries opened all those years ago, it’s still only about 1-2% of pet owners who bury their animals this way, with around 15% choosing home burial, but these are percentages of a much higher number of pets then people kept in Victorian Britain. An estimated 51% of adults have a pet according to the PDSA, and every year some 1.5 million of them die. Kevin Spurgeon is Director of the APPCC and runs the Dignity Pet Crematorium in Hook, Hampshire. A passionate advocate of care and compassion around pet death, Spurgeon is happy to accommodate double burials. He said “We are seeing an increased demand for pets to be buried alongside their owners. We have a couple in our garden who are buried with 13 sets of their pets’ ashes all interred together, and a lady who is buried with her cats. The trouble now is that a lot of pet cremations are carried out by big corporate vet chains, and there really isn’t any proper care for the pet or its owner. There are personal services out there, but people need to research it all properly to find them.”
A pet funeral costs around £660 which includes £50 towards a headstone (they cost approximately £150), attendance by the family, maintenance of the grave, and visiting rights. Spurgeon added “Pet cremation and burial is still an unregulated industry. It’s just a money maker now for these big corporate outfits, and that’s not how it should be. Pets do so much to help us through this great journey called life, and we have a duty of care to them not just during their lives but after they have gone.”
Read more: 10 tea—based drinks to ring in Spring
Read more: The art of creating a mindful prayer space
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter