Archaeologists Look Into Afterlife for Dogs

Will Fido go to Heaven? Maybe, if you do: A survey of British pet cemeteries over a century finds wistfulness firming into faith that Bowser will be joining the family in the afterlife

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Surviving gravestones from Hyde Park Pet Cemetery in London.
Surviving gravestones from Hyde Park Pet Cemetery in London.Credit: E. Tourigny
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as Tootles was laid to rest.

The gravestone doesn’t cite the year of death but notes that the deceased passed age 9. He or she is one of legions of dogs buried in a cemetery in London, and we can assume Tootles’ family grieved deeply and shed tears because a funeral and gravestone cost more than dumping the dearly departed in a ditch.

Lest you think pet interment is some sort of modern mania among people with too much money, the practice of interring animals with due ritual goes back to prehistory.

One question is why we bury our dead animals rather than stew them, and when our relationship with animals shifted from utilitarian to emotional – and beyond.

A pet dog.

At least one possible motive arises from a survey of gravestones at British pet cemeteries from the Victorian period to the present, published this week in the journal of Antiquity. In that span of time, the pet owners increasingly believed that Tootles, Whiskey, Spot et al would go to Heaven too.

Grieving for dear wee Butcha

Let’s be honest, city pets at least are pretty useless as far as guarding the manse or ratting is concerned: we keep them for love. When did this begin? Leaving cats out of it, our relationship with dogs may go back almost 40,000 years. We don’t know where and how we connected, how their domestication happened or when we began treating them as pets, i.e., “animals who occupy a domestic space and primarily serve as entertainment and companionship for humans,” Eric Tourigny of Newcastle University writes.

Among the earliest relatively solid evidence we have, two dogs were found buried with a man and a woman in Bonn-Oberkassel 14,200 years ago. One was a juvenile that died at age 7 months, whose remains indicated the poor pooch had weathered multiple bouts of distemper; to have survived at all, the pup had to have been cared for. In Israel, the grave of a woman buried with her hand resting on a puppy dates to around 12,000 years ago.

Buried with hand on puppy 12,000 years agoCredit: Gil Eliahu

Rock art in Saudi Arabia showing dogs on leashes is thought to date back 8,000 to 9,000 years ago, though the dating is quite speculative. Iranian pottery from about that time is engraved with dogs. North American dog burials have also been found from 8,500 to 3,000 years ago. And in Israel, there’s a dog cemetery in Persian-period Ashkelon dating to the fifth to third centuries B.C.E., containing over a thousand bodies.

Various indications show ancient Romans also cared for dogs, even nurturing “toy” breeds.

Why we began to bury our nearest and dearest after death is speculative. Some archaeologists believe our spiritual side may have begun in hominins preceding us, and that the extraordinarily inaccessible South African cavern in which the small-brained Homo naledi seem to have placed a number of their dead 300,000 years ago was a graveyard. Neanderthals in Iraq may have buried their dead with flowers. Elaborate human burials also go back to time immemorial, indicating that so does belief in some sort of an afterlife. Neolithic plastered skulls found throughout the Levant from about 9,000 years ago and in Gobekli Tepe, Turkey, from over 11,000 years ago are thought to signify an ancestor cult.

If we believe we have a future after death, how much is it a stretch to hope that Fido does too?

A dog pageant in the United States.Credit: SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS

Based on the changing symbology of the grave markers, Tourigny deduced that from the Victorian period to the present day, the British increasingly believed in animal afterlives. His goal in surveying the pet memorials in London was to shed light on the role animals played in British society and their upgrade from “beloved pets to valued family members,” accompanied by a rising belief in animal afterlives. The family who entombed “Dear wee Butcha” with a gravestone may have hoped to romp with his spirit in the Eternal Garden once more.

It would be nice to meet one’s best friend come the evil day – though if the faithful are right, there are going to be a lot of cats waiting for a turn on my otherworldly lap.

Burying Cherry in Hyde Park

"Vullet" awaits a blessing by a priest in Madrid on the day of Saint Anthony, Spain's patron saint of animals, January 17, 2018.Credit: SUSANA VERA/REUTERS

Tourigny meticulously points out the difficulties in the archaeology of pets. There must be myriad pets whose resting place is unknown; and the mere fact of an animal’s interment doesn’t prove it was a pet or even cherished. It could be “grave goods,” for example. Also, butchery marks on the bone aside, hallmarks of disease or trauma in the bones don’t necessarily give insight to the relationship (though a tomcat who survived serious injuries in Kazakhstan 1,100 years ago is thought to attest to him being cared for). Nor can co-burials be taken as signifying love.

To drive home the point, there is a fluffy tendency to assume the ancient Egyptians adored certain animals so much, they worshipfully mummified their remains. But a study published in Nature this year said while in some cases that was true, there was a terribly cruel industry of breeding and killing animals for the sake of their mummification.

Note that modern Israelis are indeed pet-mad and we have pet cemeteries too; which doesn’t mean we worship our Pomeranians. (It is even possible to cremate one’s dead animal in Israel and store the ash in an urn manufactured specifically for animals. It features paw prints.)

A map showing the pet graveyards in the United Kingdom that were studied by Eric Tourigny.Credit: E. Tourigny

In Britain, Tourigny points out that dog burials seem to have been common in prehistoric and Roman-era sites, yet were rare in medieval England (when dog and cat remains are more likely to be found in garbage heaps). Pet-keeping per se apparently began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and, commensurately, animal interment picked up – which the researcher believes was because Christian doctrine came to influence “appropriate” burial practice.

The 18th-century British even began to run epitaphs and elegies to their dead dogs in the local press – albeit satirically for the great part – but the topic began to arise: do dogs have souls?

Whether or not they or any of us do, in 1881 a dog called Cherry died, and the gatekeeper at Hyde Park allowed the grieving family to bury her there, Tourigny tells. Over the subsequent decades, hundreds of dogs were laid to rest in that august location. Thus, Britain gained its first of many public pet cemeteries.

Tourigny’s systematic survey of the gravestones in four cemeteries around the land – noting that many had become too weathered to read – found among other things that cat burials began later than for dogs in Britain. But more to his point, he tracked an intriguing change in vocabulary.

Surviving gravestones from Hyde Park Pet Cemetery in London.Credit: E. Tourigny

Throughout, the gravestones tend to the simple. But like in human burials, they often cited the grieving burier even more prominently than the deceased beast – and where the earlier gravestones cite things like “sorrowing mistress,” by the 20th century – and especially after World War II – we find “Mummy,” “Dad” and “Auntie.”

In other words, Fido had become family, complete with a surname on his stone. And with that status, as some British began to embrace a notion of Heaven where family life continues, they gradually adopted a notion that Bowser would be there too. Canine graves began to increasingly be marked by Christian symbology, including a cross and exhortations for “God’s care.”

By the way, it seems the dog cemetery in Phoenician Ashkelon operated over about 50 years and didn’t feature grave markers, based on the discovery of none, as well as some layered burials. But the deceased dogs were positioned carefully – dare we say lovingly? – on their sides, their legs flexed and their tails tucked in and pointing down.

Many were puppies, but we note that before the advent of antibiotics and modern medicine in general, childhood mortality in the ancient Levant was also horribly high. There is no indication that the dogs were ritually sacrificed; if anything, there is speculation that they were revered.

Back in Britain, early adopters of dog surnames put them in parentheses or quotation marks, as if to acknowledge they were not full members of the family. But the practice became more accepted – though to this day, people argue vociferously about whether pets are family or possessions.

Likewise, epitaphs citing the afterlife evolved gradually, from the tenuous to the categorical, Tourigny says. Grit’s family buried him in 1900 with the wistful “Could I think we’d meet again, it would lighten half my pain.” But the mentions began taking a more assertive tone after the war, the researcher says. Wouldn’t you know, though, it was a cat named Denny that evoked the categorical last message: “God bless until we meet again.”

Wooden cross grave markers at the Buena Vista pet cemetery, Leicestershire, England.Credit: K. Bridger
Different styles of pet memorials.Credit: E. Tourigny
How thinking of the animal afterlife developed in the United Kingdom from the 1890s onward.Credit: E. Tourigny

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