From Six Feet Under to Sixty Miles High: Honoring Pets in the Afterlife

By Coby McDonald
Professor Stanley Brandes spends a great deal of time in pet cemeteries—a habit that might be worrisome, were it not integral to his research. The UC Berkeley anthropologist says that changes in pet tombstone inscriptions over the last century reveal that Americans increasingly humanize their furry companions, and in many cases, even consider them members of the family. As this emotional connection grows, so too does the extent to which owners honor their pets in the afterlife.

Brandes began his investigation at America’s oldest pet burial ground, Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Westchester, New York. The oldest gravestones, dating back to the late 1800s, say little about the creatures buried beneath them. The species and sex are often omitted, as are the animals’ names. Some are simply labeled “Pet.” The names that do appear are mostly, well … pet names, like Trixie, Boogles, and Jaba.

After WWII, inscriptions became more detailed, even including images or photographs, and human names grew in popularity. Jaba gave way to Jacob, Freckles to François. Added details such as gender, species, and breed, Brandes says, provided the pets with something new: an identity.

As the 20th century progressed, he notes, owners increasingly welcomed their pets into the family fold. Surnames and parent-child references became common. One inscription reads “In Loving Memory of Our Princess Tiffany Wong / Mommy and Daddy Will Always Love You.”

“We’ve come to think of pets not only like kin,” Brandes says, “but as actual kin. As actual sons and daughters, sisters and brothers.” He speculates that this intensifying bond may be due to a rise in single-person households and an increasingly mobile society in which loved ones may live far away. Pets, on the other hand, stay close and have been shown to reduce depression associated with loneliness.

But does their companionship extend to the afterlife? According to Brandes, many pet owners believe so. Since the 1980s, religious symbols and expressions regularly appear on pet gravestones, as do references to heavenly reunions, which he says suggests a growing belief that pets have souls.

Pet cemeteries exist because most major religions teach that only humans possess souls, prohibiting the soulless (e.g., your Pomeranian) from interment in a human cemetery. This poses a challenge for the rising number of owners wanting their pets buried beside them. Their solution: joint burial in a pet cemetery. Hartsdale has interred the remains of more than 700 humans.

That so many owners perceive their companion animals as “equivalent beings” is good news for the pet business, Brandes notes. Americans spend over $50 billion annually on their pets, and there are now over 600 aftercare facilities in the country.

This fall, a private Aerospace company, Celestis, Inc., will perform the first pet memorial spaceflight, launching the ashes of an Australian shepherd named Apollo into the heavens. Fees for the service will run up to $12,500, depending on how deep into space the cremains are sent—or, perhaps more importantly, how deep into their pockets pet owners are willing to dig to commemorate their dearly departed companions.

From the Fall 2014 Radicals issue of California.
Filed under: Human Behavior
Image source: AP Photo by Nick Ut
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