Paris is well known for her celebrated cemeteries, most notably the Pre Lachaise, which is home to the graves of such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison. On my recent trip to Paris, I had another cemetery in my sights, however — the Cimitire des Chiens, the world’s oldest public pet cemetery.
The cemetery possesses a rich history. Although animal welfare was showing some improvement in Paris during the 19th century, options for what to do with the remains of a deceased pet were still crude and limited. More often than not, the remains were tossed out with the household garbage, dumped into the Seine, or even in the moats around the fortified city walls.
However, in 1898, the Parisian government declared that dead pets could no longer be discarded in the trash or dumped in the river. They had to be buried in hygienic graves located, at minimum, 100 meters from the nearest dwelling so that “the body will be covered with a layer of earth at least a meter thick.”
Georges Harmois and Marguerite Durand sought to profit from the new law by conceiving the “Anonymous French Society of the Cemetery for Dogs and other Domestic Animals” in 1899. The society purchased half of a small island that met the requirement of being at least 100 meters from the nearest dwelling. Construction was begun, and the cemetery opened to the public in the summer of 1899.
Many types of animals
Although its name translates to “Cemetery of Dogs,” the Cimetire des Chiens contains more than 40,000 animals, including cats, a racehorse, a lion, a monkey, and other domestic animals such as rabbits, hamsters, mice, birds and fish. In fact, the cemetery is referred to as the Cimetire des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques, emphasizing the inclusion of other domestic animals.
Among the famous animals memorialized in the cemetery are Barry and Rin Tin Tin. Barry is the world’s most famous St. Bernard — with a monument erected near the entrance in 1900 — after he was credited with saving some 40 lives. After 12 years of service, he was moved to Switzerland to live out the rest of his life comfortably until he died at the age of 14. (Note: Barry is not buried in the cemetery; his body was preserved and is displayed at the Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland.)
Rin Tin Tin returned home
Rin Tin Tin — the canine star of Hollywood in the 1920’s and ‘30’s — is also buried here. Rin Tin Tin was a French dog, rescued from a bombed-out kennel in Lorraine by an American soldier during WWI and taken to the U.S., where he later found fame in some twenty-six Warner Brothers films. When he died in 1932, it seemed fitting to return him to his homeland.
Some graves are marked with a simple plaque, while others have elaborate headstones and engravings. Many are adorned with statues, trinkets and photos. A favorite of mine was an understated grave marker for a dog named Arry. It shows the dog’s name, and a plastic case filled with tennis balls. This dog obviously loved his tennis balls above anything else, and this minimalist tribute was as moving as the most adorned graves in the cemetery.
Another standout was an engraved, photo-adorned tomb for Ramss. The engraving reads: “For you, my Ramss, an exceptional cat, and so nice. We lived with paws and hands united for 9 years of love and togetherness, but with some suffering, too. How cruel and hard it is to bear your absence. May God help us. If your grave should be neglected, I will still be close to you forever in my heart — Your Mama.”
Gained landmark status
Not surprisingly, after over a century, the cemetery has suffered the ravages of time. When a final closing was planned, the grave owners and many admirers of the old cemetery mobilized into action. The Mayor’s office saved the cemetery by deeming it a landmark in 1987, in consideration of its “picturesque, artistic, historic and legendary” value.
The beautiful Art Nouveau entrance, designed by architect Eugne Petit, has been restored, and the wooded area permits grave owners and visitors to once again enjoy the timeless charm of this special cemetery. — Arnold Plotnick, DVM, DACVIM