“I don’t want to be buried in a pet sematary/I don’t want to live my life again!”
— “Pet Sematary,” the Ramones
I once had a pet rat named Becky. After two and a half years of feisty play and impish scampering, tug of wars and belly tickles, she got terminal cancer and I had to put her down. I placed her remains in a decorated wooden box, dug a hole in the hard Texas dirt, and buried her in my backyard.
I repeated this ritual with three other pet rats — Phoebe, Tammy, LaShonda — and it shattered me every time. My yard became a veritable pet cemetery, a rodent resting place, and each grave should have cautioned me: Never again. I didn’t learn.
I also buried a blue betta fish named Alvy in the ad hoc graveyard. He thrived for four swishing years in a big sparkling bowl. I nestled the old man in a matchbox and set him in the ground, saluting him for his gratifying longevity. I miss the fish.
If you care one lick, laying your pet to rest is undiluted trauma. The platitude holds: pets are family, loving and adored, like hairy children who only live to their teens, if that. So integral are they to our lives, you swear they speak English and read minds. (I’m convinced Cubby the dog is really a tiny man in a dog suit. I keep looking for a zipper.)
And so we honor them in death as in life, with a sentimental flourish and teary respect. Or at least we do in the modern age. There was a time when “people disposed of their dead pets in the river, or might have sold their bodies for meat and skin,” notes a CNN essayist. I know of modern folks subjecting their late Spots and Trixies to taxidermy, which is not only creepy, it’s selfish and disrespectful and twisted.
Burial and cremation are popular send-offs. Barcelona, Spain, is set to open its first pet cemetery next year, with plans to carry out 7,000 animal cremations a year. Why? “Constant public demand,” they say. Barcelona is home to 180,000 dogs alone. Surely there’s just as many cats. (Rats? I bet.)
In 1983, Stephen King published the popular horror novel “Pet Sematary” about some macabre happenings surrounding a buried cat that is resurrected, or some such nonsense. The book spawned a 1989 movie (with “cemetery” also intentionally misspelled for plot purposes), which featured a cat-chy theme song by the Ramones.
The book and film helped spread the idea of the pet cemetery. And yet pet cemeteries are not some freaky esoteric brainchild of ghoul-meister King. There’s one in London’s Hyde Park, founded in 1881. New York’s legendary Hartsdale pet cemetery was founded in 1896, followed by Paris’ Cimetière des Chiens in 1899.
About a hundred years later, I founded my own pet cemetery, at age 6, in my family’s pretty and serene Japanese-style garden in Santa Barbara. (This preceded the rat resting place by decades.) Surrounded by bamboo, moss and a statuary fountain, the graveyard contained goldfish, salamanders and other mostly water-bound critters. I’ve been at this a while.
On film, celebrated director Errol Morris made his debut with the acclaimed 1978 documentary “Gates of Heaven,” about the pet cemetery business and the souls who rely on it. It’s alive with vivid characters who are wrenchingly emotional about their dearly departed four-leggers.
Critic Roger Ebert, who named the film one of his 10 all-time favorites, wrote about “the woman who speaks of her dead pet and says, ‘There’s your dog, and your dog’s dead. But there has to be something that made it move. Isn’t there?’
“In those words,” Ebert writes, “is the central question of every religion.”
That pretty much says it all.