Another discovery in the bare spring woods, when taking an unexpected path: the pet cemetery in the Djurgården.
I went for a walk there the other day and stumbled across it, back among the young trees behind the horse paddocks and the dog training center. Here you can find disorderly rows of headstones, flower pots, and markers for animals long and recently departed. People have arranged café chairs at the graves, and several benches sit at the edge of the peaceful clearing.
I couldn’t believe I’d never seen this before. It seems like it would be hard to miss a cemetery in a public park. But the Djurgården has so many trails, for horses and people and dogs and bikes, that I decided this must be a secluded and hidden spot. I couldn’t even figure out if it was official.
And then my mother-in-law and her sister (D&D!) came back from their first walk in the woods there, on one of their first days in town, and mentioned casually: oh yes, and we found the pet cemetery. It sounded so normal to them, and they seemed pleased to have seen it.
Their discovery reminded me of how I felt on first seeing those organic rows of animal gravestones, and started an interesting conversation — one that I will share in part here and invite you to continue in the comments.
I realize that people have long mourned their pets. Cemeteries devoted to animals are not uncommon; search your local directory or online, and you will find numerous pet memorial parks and crematoriums. And this is a very longstanding tradition: Peruvians mummified their dogs, and, yes, the Egyptians buried their cats, mummified (though perhaps that was more religious than loving?). These animals are companions, friends, members of the family.
Nevertheless, on seeing this particular pet cemetery in the Djurgården, I had to tamp down a feeling of … discomfort, if that’s the right word, that I felt. (And no, I’ve never read the Stephen King book or seen the movie.) Let me explain, and please bear with me.
I felt slightly shocked that people had paid so much for the fine granite tombstones, engraved with the names and the dates of birth and death of their beloved departed cats and dogs. I couldn’t help but feel that this act of mourning was a complete waste of resources. Plus, I felt nonplussed that this cemetery was on public land.
I had spent the rest of my walk, past the dog walkers and horses and elderly folks taking their pets out for a jaunt, considering my reaction that day. I do recognize how important animals are to us. We have spent thousands of years domesticating dogs, cats, horses, birds and other creatures as pets, not as food. Perhaps those relationships started out as more of a working companionship, for hunting, pest control, transport, power, communication, and more.
But we have replaced these creatures with machines (much as we are replacing humans with machines, in car manufacturing and other walks of life), and now we treat our animals more like us: we give them healthcare (from heart surgery to dental care), pet insurance, the best tasty morsels of food from our pantries and tables, and more — sometimes more than we give other humans on the planet, including respect, it might seem.
But as one of the D’s pointed out: our animals give back. They are good for our health, by walking us and calming us, some research shows (though the evidence is contradictory in some cases). D pointed out that some studies even have shown that dogs can recognize illness just by its scent. They love us, and we love them, and that’s the point.
I still grapple with this a bit, and I hope I didn’t offend D&D (and you, gentle readers) by my questioning of this longstanding tradition of human-animal relationships. And here’s where I may have failed in the past: I did not love my own dog as much as I should have when I was a teenager. I abandoned Lady, the Cocker Spaniel my parents gave me as a child (yes, yes, named after the Disney cartoon — I was 7!); I think she may not have had a good life. I carry some guilt about that (I think I may have even written about it here before), and I swore I would never have a pet ever again.
I think that is part of my discomfort with the whole pet cemetery thing: I would never have gone to visit Lady and her headstone, let alone buried her. I certainly didn’t take very good care of her while she was alive. And now here’s the rub to all this: lately, I find myself stopping to pet dogs, oohing and aahing over beautiful breeds, watching the dog walkers out at all hours of the day (ringed by other people’s animal companions). … I want a dog!