The relationship between people and their pets has always been really important. Just think about the bond you have with your pets. Now compare it to the sad story of Argus, Odysseus’ faithful dog, in Homer's The Odyssey. When the hero finally manages to get to his palace, he doesn’t want anyone to recognize him, so he disguises himself. No one really notices that the master of the house is there except for the pup, who is now a poor old dog who can’t walk properly. When he sees his master, Argus tries his best to reach him, but Odysseus is trying not to reveal his true identity, so he walks away while shedding a tear. The dog, relieved that his master is finally home, dies. That ancestral bond with pets is part of our nature. It’s an unconditional demonstration of love that won't disappear anytime soon.
But this relationship isn't just about sharing our lives with them for a few years. Historically, pets have accompanied us both in life and death. One example of this can be seen in the Pre-Columbian Mexica civilization. The Xoloitzcuintli, an endemic dog breed, accompany their masters even in the afterlife. Actually, they were thought to be their guides to the underworld, and as such, they were buried together so that, while their bodies rested in that physical spot, their souls would journey together for eternity. The idea of pet burials is as old as time, but these practices vanished when Christianity became of one the largest religions in the world. Of course, In fact, there’s evidence that throughout history there have several cultures who disposed of the pet's body in the backyard or the grounds near the owner’s home.
Today, we still place a lot of value in that relationship, and it’s become more common to see people honoring the lives of their life companions once they pass away. There are companies turning their ashes into jewelry or even using them as soil to plant trees. But when did these practices become so popular? As you might have guessed from the title of the article, yes, it was the Victorians who popularized this practice and gave shape to the traditions we have today. The first official pet cemetery was created in 1881 in Hyde Park (London). A couple who loved taking their lovely Maltese, Cherry, to walk through the park asked one of the keepers for permission to bury their recently deceased dog in the grounds of the park to honor their pet. Soon, many recurring visitors of the park adopted their idea and began to bury their beloved pets on these grounds. It’s said that this section of the park quickly became the final resting place for the remains of all sorts of pets, from dogs and cats to small monkeys, and even a lion cub (yes, Victorians were one of a kind).
Soon, other important cities in the world began to designate places so that people could deposit their pets and visit them as they do with their beloved relatives and friends. In Paris, the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux opened its gates in the late 19th century and it’s the resting place of celebrity pets like the German Shepherd Rin Tin Tin and other famous animal. The state of New Jersey also created a special place for this purpose that later became a popular attraction for tabloids that wanted to post the eccentric funerary rites of wealthy people burying their pets.
Besides the pet graveyards that became so popular at the time (in Edinburgh’s castle there’s a special area at the top of a tower that was adapted to become a pet cemetery for the soldiers' pets), there was a huge craze for funerary services and rites devoted to animals. Families would organize a full funeral for their pets that included choirs, long processions through the park, visitors dressed in black, offering their condolences to the family, and even sharing anecdotes or pictures they had of said animal. But it wasn’t as easy as you would think. These people really wanted to make it a formal affair with a proper religious ceremony to make sure that their lovely animals entered the realm of the Lord.
Naturally, the church wasn’t really onboard with these practices and even condemned them for being heretical. However, many priests agreed to officiate ceremonies to plea for the eternal rest of these animals when offered a hefty donation. Obviously, most of these practices were only popular among the upper class, and the rest of society generally saw them as just another bizarre rich people quirk. But there were others who saw these rituals as an offense to the church and their beliefs, and there’s even a case of a riot reported in Edinburgh in 1885.
What the pet cemeteries around the world show is not only the love and the bond people have with their pets and the devotion they showed when saying goodbye to them, but also their loyalty and their concern about their pets' well-being in the afterlife. In that sense, I think we still follow the practices of the ancient Egyptians or Mexicas in our hope to be reunited with these beings who offered us their unconditional love.
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