As early November approaches, an annual rite here in Italy is upon us. Families will begin flocking to their local cemeteries, autumnal flowers in hand, to pay respects to the departed and tidy up the family plot. While these sombre events take place, spare a moment for an entirely different sort of cemetery that draws the sorrowful all year round: burial grounds for pets.
Some people will go to any length for their pets. Legend has it that Roman Emperor Caligulas horse Incitatus, for example, enjoyed the privilege of shelter in a marble stable, with an ivory stall, jewelled collar and golden drinking pail. Most owners have a more measured rapport with their furred or feathered friends, but when it comes to
burial, the cemetery option is often chosen to close the chapter
with a household pet.
The pet cemetery in Londons Royal Kensington Gardens is a case in point. Concealed today behind a thick shield of hedging on the north side of Hyde Park by Victoria Gate, this hidden and padlocked pet cemetery started off life or rather, death in 1881, when the Duke of Cambridge still held the title of Ranger of the central London royal parks. His former servant, one Mr Winbridge, lived at the gatehouse there, keeping an eye on strollers, befriending all. His first call to shovel came when a Maltese terrier, Cherry, owned by one such stroller, departed this earth. Could Cherry kindly be buried behind Winbridges lodge? He agreed and a fine tombstone reading Poor Cherry. Died April 2, 1881 was duly put in place.
Before long, the Dukes wifes dog, Prince, met his end under the wheels of a passing carriage, and Winbridge got his shovel out again. The grandees of Mayfair were soon lining up with their deceased pets and by 1893 there were 39 dogs in Winbridges back yard. Over the years dogs, cats, parakeets and even a monkey made it to Victoria Gate. By 1953, 300 small graves were wedged in, under a ring of shading plane, horse chestnut and cherry trees. Ivy, laurel and box hedging provide privacy, while a dotting of bluebells, tulips and daffodils lends a touch of poetry to the place.
A Blue Persian puss named Kim was for a long spell reckoned to be the very last animal admitted for interment. But in 1967, special permission was granted to the Royal Marines for a truly final burial. It was for their 11-year-old mascot Prince, who was buried in the southern corner. With that, Londons most picturesque graveyard was closed to any further admissions.
England by no means lays exclusive claim to creating final resting places for pets. Along the Italian Riviera, inland from Rapallo, up the winding road to Montallegro, stands another such cemetery with an unplanned beginning. It is still in use and has no formal name. At an anonymous curve in the road is a small, stark signpost that reads (in Italian): Gravero natural history trail. Dog cemetery. Climbing ancient Ligurian stone steps from one overgrown terrace to another, one comes upon a jungly tangle of ivy and other vegetation. This was once the property of Ligurian politician Ambrogio Molfino and his aristocratic wife, Amalia. All that survives today are the four crumbling walls of the S. Francesco Saverio chapel, which acts as the gateway into the burial area.
Amalia Molfino was the first to bury her pets in the grounds. In 1841, up went a handsome column crowned with an Etruscan amphora, etched with the words Ad una fedelt pi che umana. Somehow word got around that the area was an acceptable pet cemetery, and although over time the family moved on and this small patch was abandoned, nothing deterred the locals from bringing their animals up the steep hillside for a dignified send-off. Touching little markers, some with photographs affixed to the stone, signal the final resting places of these animals.
In Florence, in Via B. Rucellai near the train station, stands the 1911 neo-gothic St Jamess American Church. Enter, turn right through the well-manicured grounds and proceed to the gravelled rear rotonda. Over the years many parishioners have brought their animals for burial here, some marking the occasion with marble plaques, beginning with one from February 1919. In all, there are ten animals in this small cemetery, including a recently deceased golden retriever that belonged to an American diplomat.
In Rome stands another cemetery on the grounds of the Villa Wolkonsky, the residence of the British ambassador to Italy. Behind the aqueduct walls are stone markers for pets that have died over the last half-century, mostly belonging to embassy families. One contains the remains of the dog belonging to Douglas Hurd, who served in Rome from 1963 to 1966 and was later to become foreign secretary. The most prominent marker of all is the tombstone of Nerone, a large, black, labrador-like mongrel who saw five ambassadors come and go before his own demise in 1995. During his stay on the villas grounds, his chief role was to scare the living daylights out of the encroaching wild cat population. Nerone shares the burial ground with assorted dogs, cats and a turtle.
There are surely many other animal burial grounds around Italy where owners have laid to rest their furry friends. Large or small,
animal tombs show that many feel tribute is just as warranted for
them as it is for us.
Picture: The picturesque pet cemetery in Londons Kensington Gardens.