In 1896, a grieving woman showed up at the office of her Manhattan veterinarian with an unusual request: Her dog had just died, and she wanted to give it a proper burial. The sympathetic doc offered a spot in his apple orchard north of the city. Word caught on, and soon the vet was besieged with similar requests. Today, his former country retreat is the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery & Crematory, the first pet cemetery in the United States and the final resting place of more than 70,000 dogs, cats, and other animals.
A new study of more than 1000 pet gravestones reveals that since the time of that first burial, our relationship with our furry friends has changed dramatically, with many pets transforming from mere friends to full-fledged members of the family. Over time, pets were more likely to be memorialized with the family name, referred to as children, and even given figurative passage to heaven.
The study is “a valuable contribution,” says Philip Howell, a historical geographer at the University of Cambridge and an expert on the changing relationship between humans and animals. “I don’t know that anyone has tried to do something like this before.”
Eric Tourigny had the idea of analyzing pet gravestones in 2014 while investigating the excavated remains of a mid–19th century house in downtown Toronto. The owners had buried a large dog in their backyard, and Tourigny, a zooarchaeologist at Newcastle University, began to wonder what pet graves could reveal about the changing status of dogs and cats in the home.
He turned to four of the largest pet cemeteries in the United Kingdom, including the country’s oldest, Hyde Park, which dates back to 1881. Then, Tourigny conducted what he says is the first systematic analysis of the writing and symbolism on pet tombstones, collecting data on 1169 grave markers from 1881 to 1991.
The proliferation of cemeteries themselves mark a turning point in our relationship with pets. Before then, many people “would throw the bodies in the river or the rubbish, or sell them for their skin or meat,” Tourigny says. Some owners also buried their pets in their backyards, as he had seen in Toronto. But few entertained the idea of internment in a dedicated public cemetery.
Tourigny chalks the shift up to Charles Darwin and other scientific luminaries of the time, whose writings put animals on more equal footing with humans. He also credits the growing sentimentality of the Victorian era, which made public displays of affection toward pets more acceptable.
Yet early pet gravestones tended to be simple, often featuring just the pet’s name and a date. “Darling Fluff,” one reads. “Maude. An old friend,” another.
After World War II, however, Tourigny noticed some big changes. Gravestones began to denote owners as “Mummy” or “Dad.” “Here Lies My Darling Pixie, Mommy’s Little Angel,” reads a 1976 marker. And “Fluffy” became “Fluffy Smith,” as pets took on the family name.
Only three gravestones before 1910—less than 1% of those surveyed—referred to a pet as a family member. And only six used surnames, Tourigny reports today in Antiquity. But after the war, almost 20% of grave makers described pets as family, and 11% used surnames. He also noticed more cat graves as time went on.
The changes dovetail with the rising status of pets in society. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dogs—and eventually cats—began to live indoors in large numbers in the United Kingdom and the United States, thanks to the advent of flea shampoo and kitty litter. Families grew smaller and more prosperous, giving them more time to dote on their animal companions. And pet food, toys, and medicine became more sophisticated, in some cases rivaling those available to humans. “There was a greater willingness to identify pets as one of the family,” says Howell, who has written a book about dogs in the Victorian United Kingdom.
Pets evolved spiritually, as well. In the 19th century, religious icons like Christian crosses and Jewish Stars of David are rarely seen on pet gravestones, and there is only a tentative suggestion that owners might reunite with their beloved companions in the afterlife. “Could I think we’d meet again,” reads one 1900 headstone from Hyde Park. Just a few decades later, however, cats and dogs seem able to cross the pearly gates. “God bless until we meet again,” reads the 1952 tombstone of a cat named Denny.
Before 1910, only six pet grave markers (about 1%) sported either a religious symbol or allusion to heaven, compared with 104—or nearly 20%—after World War II, Tourigny found. Before then, he says, “Just saying your animal is going to heaven would have been very controversial.”
Still, Howell says—given that the study covers only four pet graveyards in the United Kingdom—it’s unclear whether the findings apply elsewhere in Europe, much less the rest of the world, where attitudes about pets may vary dramatically.
Tourigny’s data end in the early 1990s, when the cemeteries he surveyed ran out of space and stopped accepting pets. But it seems our relationship with dogs and cats has only grown stronger since then—as graveyards once again reveal. In 2016, for the first time, New York made it legal for pets to be buried with their owners in human cemeteries. “Four-legged friends are family for many New Yorkers,” the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, said at the time. “Who are we to stand in the way if someone’s final wish includes spending eternity with them?”