A visit at the Cimetière des Chiens, the world’s oldest Pet Cemetery
The Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques, translated as the Cemetery of the Dogs and other Domestic Animals, in Asnières-sur-Seine, just outside of Paris, is the oldest pet cemetery in Europe, and perhaps in the world, depending on its definition of a “pet cemetery.” It claims to be the first pet cemetery in the world and even if there are some more ancient than it, it is the first to be basically a smaller version of our own modern cemeteries. Shrouded in decaying grandeur, it’s probably, according to a local boy, the Père-Lachaise of pet cemeteries! After all, if everyone visits Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, and Jim Morrison, why not spend any time also with Rin Tin Tin and Kiki?
The living conditions of animals were considerably improved during the nineteenth century. Still today, the brevity of a pet’s life in relation to its owner’s doesn’t lessen the emotional impact these animals have on their lives, and once they’ve passed on, some people find ways to dedicate an eternal tribute to them.
With the law of June 21, 1898 which stated that domestic animals “can be buried in a pit located at least a hundred meters from the houses and so that the corpse is covered with a layer of earth at least one meter thick“, the opening of an animal cemetery became possible. Thus, created in 1899 by lawyer Georges Harmois and feminist and journalist Marguerite Durand, the founder of the newspaper “La Fronde” (her pony is interred right at the front of the cemetery), the cemetery became a National Landmark.
By creating a final resting place that was not only hygienic, but also scenic and quaint, the zealous pair of animal advocates offered a healthy alternative to the then-common practice of dumping pets’ corpses in the Seine or in trash bins, or scattering their ashes in the Médici Fountain at the Jardin du Luxembourg. As a result, within 8 years after the launch, 4,000 pets had been buried in the Cimetière des Chiens and by 1934, the number had jumped to an impressive 20,000.
By now, some 40,000 pets have been buried here, so there’s a tale at every gravestone.
The grave of the TV star Rin Tin Tin is here, the Hollywood dog star whose owner sold his house so that the French-born canine rescued from the trenches could be buried in his home country. The popular dog, along with a race horse and a menagerie of other pets including thousands of cats, horses, birds, rabbits, turtles, mice, hamsters, fish, a gazelle, a monkey, a lion, a sheep and a chicken, a “loyal and inseparable companion.”
Just past the stone entrance designed by Art Nouveau architect Eugene Petit there is a monument to Barry the Saint Bernard, a famed mountain rescue dog. As the inscription reads, between 1800 and 1812, Barry rescued 40 people caught in blizzards in St. Bernard Pass, a famously dangerous route through the Alps between Italy and Switzerland. Sadly, Barry died while trying to save the life of the 41st victim claimed by the snows. The dog himself is actually taxidermied and on display at the Natural History Museum in Bern.
There is also a memorial to a dog named Dick by the solider who he accompanied in the trenches of WWI. It ends: “Ainsi je suis tout seul, ne croyant plus à rien. La vie m’a tant meurtri! […] Il fût aimé par sa maîtresse et cela seul me fait du bien.” Translated: “Now I am alone, not believing in anything. Life has been painful! He [Dick] was loved by his owner, and that alone gives me comfort.”
Dozens of stones later, a memorial for Mémère, the canine mascot of the Chasseurs à pied, the light infantrymen in the French Imperial army, the grave of Djinn, a fennec fox, a tombstone for a sheep named Faust and a grave for a dog named Drapeau (French for flag), a “companion of war.”
In addition, the resting place of Troytown, an Irish horse who had an unfortunate habit of barging right through fences, and in that way had a deadly fall in the 1920 Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris race, and a sculpture of the dog Emma on her deathbed, with the epitaph: “Fidèle compagne et seule amie de ma vie errante et désolée.” Translated: “Loyal companion and only friend in my errant and sorry life.”
Even though some graves are more famous than others, each belongs to an animal who had a very loving family, and it state the most repeated epitaph: “Je ne t’oublierai jamais,” “I will not forget you.”
To this day, many of the tombs are decorated with dog or pet toys, with some of them permanently affixed to the tombstones. The stone entrance of the cemetery can be easily seen as you cross the Seine.
Instead of mausoleums, many of the tombs are stone pet houses and there is a house at the back of the cemetery where they take care of stray cats.
Below are some images from the cemetery, where each grave is a tribute to the bonds people have with their animals, which don’t stop at death.
Author’s notes: a small entrance fee is paid at the gate (3,50€ in september 2019), and they’ll give you a map listing the location of the graves of the most famous pets buried here. Then you are free to wander the tombs.
All images are mine.