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The curious funerals for pets in Victorian Times.

4 min read

During the 19th century it was really common that the mortal remains of a pet, especially the house cat, were buried in the family garden. In Victorian times, however, the custom of celebrating funerals for these animals increased considerably. The grieving family were doing richly decorated caskets, priests performed funeral services for the dead pets and the stonemasons chiselled the name of the cat on marble gravestones. Many people celebrated this ceremonies, and they thought that did not represent an extravagant eccentricity of the rich, or yet another whim of a lonely spinster, but there were also people who felt deeply offended by the fact that an animal could receive a Christian burial.

In March 1894, several British newspapers reported the story of a distinguished lady from Kensington who wanted a funeral for her cat, Paul. Here extract from the Cheltenham Chronicle:

“Except for the religious aspect, the function was conducted as if it were the burial of a human person of some importance. A respectable undertaker was called, and was commissioned to perform the funeral: the body had to be enclosed in a pod to be placed inside a beautiful oak coffin. There were the usual ornaments, including a plate engraved with the statement that ‘Paul’ had been the beloved and faithful cat of the Miss for seventeen years, who now mourns her loss in adequate terms. The coffin, with a beautiful crown above it, was displayed in the undertaker’s shop, where it was the object of intense interest and certainly not of fun.”

Some cats even had religious obsequies. An 1897 edition of the Hull Daily Mail reports the story of a priest who celebrated his cat’s funeral, described as obese, black and white, who loved to take walks with his master. At his death, the pastor and his family “fell into mourning”, like reports the site Daily Mail:

“For three days the cat, whose remains were lovingly placed in a beautiful oak coffin with brass decorations and the interior covered with silk and wool, was displayed in the living room. At the end of this period, the reverend called a taxi that took him to the station, where he took a train to the north, bringing with him the oak coffin and the precious remains. The ceremonial was respected until the end, and the burial service, in part, was celebrated on the cat’s grave.”

Sometimes these “crazy” funerals provoked the wrath of people who did not approve that the pets being treated like human beings. In September 1885, an Edinburgh Evening News article tells the story of an “old old woman” who wanted to give her dead cat, Tom, a “worthy burial”. He had a suitable coffin built and commissioned a gravedigger, named Jamie, to dig a grave for Tom in the local cemetery.

As the article says:

“The funeral, which took place yesterday afternoon, had many participants: the young lady carrying the coffin and on the road to the cemetery a crowd of young people who followed her, who became excessively noisy. Fearing that the story would end in a fight, ‘Jamie’ closed the iron gate with the intention of preventing it, allowing a select few to enter. The crowd, however, became even more excited, some climbed over the wall, and everyone shouted loudly, barking that it was a shame and a disgrace to bury a cat like a Christian.”

It was not clear if this was really due to outrage at the fact that a cat was buried “like a Christian”, or was simply an excuse for rowdy young people to create havoc. Regardless, the result of this that followed was extremely unpleasant for Tom’s elderly mistress.

The Edinburgh Evening News also reports: “The coffin was then destroyed, and the cat’s body was removed, and eventually the din became so great that the police intervention was needed, called to protect the undertaker and the old lady.” Perhaps the main cause of anger was that the lady wanted to bury a cat in a cemetery for “human”. In many consecrated ground, the burial of domestic animals was not allowed, and consequently borned cemeteries for animals. One of the best known was the Hyde Park Dog Cemetery, inaugurated in 1881. As the name indicates, it was a burial place for dogs, but there were also buried a small monkey, and two cats. Other cemeteries for animals existed throughout Victorian England, both public and private: that of Sir Thomas Lennard, in Essex, had monuments dating back to 1850; the Edinburgh Castle Cemetery was born as a burial site for officers’ dogs and the Royal Regiment of Scotland mascots; the writer Thomas Hardy had a pet cemetery in his home in Max Gate, Dorchester, where all the graves had a headstone, one of which was personally engraved by the famous novelist.

In this years, probably we think that the funeral for pets was predominantly organized by a stereotypical figure of a spinster, but it was not so, because throughout history, there have always been very grieved people for the loss of their pets. During the Victorian era, this pain was expressed with elaborate funerals for the lost little friends.

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