Hartsdale, NY – When someone says the words “pet cemetery,” does Stephen King come to mind? Do you envision dead things rising from the earth and reclaiming their undead form? It used to be that way for us too until we discovered that we had a historically acclaimed pet cemetery right here in the Hudson Valley. The oldest pet cemetery in America was started right in Hartsdale in Westchester County known as the Hartsdale Canine Cemetery. This amazing cemetery is the final resting place of beloved pets whose humans wanted the very best for them in death just as in life. In a world where pets have become valued family members, or for some the equivalent of children in little fur coats, it is not surprising that this unique cemetery now houses nearly 70,000 internments thanks to a kind man who saw the value in helping a a distraught woman prepare for a proper burial for her adored companion.
In 1896, veterinarian Samuel Johnson, gave solace to a woman who was suffering the through the painful loss of her dog. The woman wanted to give her darling pet a proper send off. Traditionally pets were disposed of as refuse in that time. If you lived in the city, it was challenging to bury an animal within the city limits leading to a logistical and legal nightmare due to health regulations and lack of space. After giving the issue some thought, Dr. Johnson agreed to allow the woman to bury her dog on a piece of land located on his apple orchard in Hartsdale. This made the woman very happy. According to the Hartsdale Canine Cemetery, there are no records of this burial, probably lost to time, but they are certain that the remains reside in the Peaceable Kingdom. The Peaceable Kingdom is a famous painting by Edward Hicks (1780-1849) that depicts the relationship among man and animal. While this image can evoke many translations, the comparison to this work of art speaks to the idea that there are many types of animals resting in the Hartsdale Canine Cemetery from snakes and goldfish to guinea pigs and lion all harmoniously resting together at the hand of their human companions. When work of this act of kindness made the news, Dr. Johnson’s orchard organically grew to become the final resting place for many loyal pets.
We roamed the pet cemetery for hours and you can’t help but be visibly moved by the love and sentiment that is poured into this five acres of property. One of the first memorials to capture my attention was the stones sculpture of a mean looking bulldog appropriately named GRUMPY. Obviously, someone really loved him regardless of this labeled disposition. Grumpy passed in 1896 and his epitaph reads, “His sympathetic love and understanding enriched our lives – He waits for us.” One of the most famous pet memorials on the site is the War Dog Memorial. A shepherd proudly stands on a hill over looking the cemetery. At the shepherd’s feet are a bronze helmet and a canteen. Dog lovers felt that these great dogs should be memorialized for their important role in aiding soldiers during the World War. There are also markers that commemorate the dogs who served in the 1995 Oklahoma Bombing and the 2001 search and rescues dogs who served during 9/11. You can’t miss – it just head to the top of the long stairs that lead directly to the monument usually marked by American flags.
Roaming through the monuments, you will see that many date back to the late 19th and early 20th century. During that time, Dr. Johnson’s pet cemetery continued to be popular in the news and among pet owners who have lost their pets. While the cemetery is a celebration of lives of beloved animals, the cemetery was gaining a reputation as being a passing fancy for the New York rich. Wealthy New Yorkers spared no expense while planning the funeral for their pets. Many articles were published in the New York Times that highlighted the elaborate pet funerals of the time. In 1909, one article focused on the highly anticipated burial vault that a woman named Mrs. Allan-Shepard, the wife of a wealthy jeweler, would have made to bury her Maltese poodle in.
The article quoted one New York undertaker stating, “I don’t know why animals should not have decent burials,” referring to dog burials. “ They are family friends and people do not feel like they can be taken off by the ash man like so much rubbish, and they are not allowed to buried them in their own yards.” That said, it is not surprising that the cemetery would be labeled as a service for the rich. Pet funerals must have been viewed as a frivolous expense to some who were not as financially stable. In today’s world, I think that idea still applies for many of us, and today when you mention Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, some people may comment on the notable pet burials of famous pet owners like singer Mariah Carey or chef Rocco DiSpirito. While not all of us will go through the motions of a pet funeral, we do not take the passing of a family pet lightly.
I don’t know about you, but when one of my furry children become ill, my life stops. So, I can’t tell you what you will experience if you visit this historically famous pet cemetery, but I can tell you that it is a special place and if you find yourself traveling down North Central Park Avenue in Hartsdale, take the time to stop and take a stroll. Just look for the black iron gates that read Hartsdale Canine Cemetery 1896. While the Hartsdale Canine Cemetery may not be haunted, it is internationally famous and a must see here in the Hudson Valley.
The Hartsdale Canine Cemetery: www.petcem.com
“Plans a Monument to Her Pet Dog”, New York Times, September 29, 1907