I suspect most people like me occasionally walk through a cemetery during the day and read headstones.
Some do so while visiting the burial site of a loved one or friend. Some do it out of sheer curiosity. Whatever the reason, a headstone provides information. Some academic was eventually bound to consider analyzing that data.
Enter Eric Tourigny, a zooarchaeologist at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. Back in 2014, he had the idea of analyzing pet gravestones, according to a recent article published in Science News written by David Grimm.
Tourigny was tasked with investigating the excavated remains of a mid–19th century house in Toronto. The owners of the time had buried a large dog in their backyard. Tourigny began to wonder if the data from pet graves could reveal anything about the changing household status of pet dogs and cats over time.
Doing a public information job for Washington State University in the College of Veterinary Medicine for more than 30 years has revealed two extraordinary, overlapping things. The first is that one can never know how a pet owner will choose to memorialize a loved pet. The second is, never underestimate or try to predict with certainty how one will grieve over the loss of a pet.
I personally know people who have a memorial for their beloved Labrador retriever in the front yard, always visible from the windows or porch. It is bigger than many human gravesites.A woman in the Tacoma area has all her pets buried in mounded ground and marked with crosses bearing their names and earthly lifespan. The ground just happens to be right next to her pool deck for all her guests to see and perhaps stumble over.
A couple who owned full brother dogs from the same litter of great Danes brought in both for humane euthanasia. Each dog was suffering and riddled with cancer. They sought humane euthanasia and WSU clinicians provided the service. They also had one request for donating their dogs’ cadavers to WSU for teaching purposes.
“When possible,” they asked in the midst of their tears, “could you extract the right upper canine tooth from each dog and send them to us?”
“Sure,” I said. “May I ask why?”
“We want to make matching neck chains for us to wear in their memory,” they said almost in unison.
These are but three of the many such things I have had the honor of seeing firsthand. So why wouldn’t one think to gather data from the words and numbers placed on headstones? Many people that have gone to a cemetery or mausoleum look on in wonder at just how many people died during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
Tourigny collected data from four of the largest pet cemeteries in the UK. He included Hyde Park, the oldest, which dates back to 1881. This amounted to data from 1,169 grave markers from 1881 to 1991. He then conducted the first systematic analysis of the writing and symbolism on pet tombstones.
He found that before 1881, most folks just dumped dead pets wherever. Beginning about then they started to consider memorializing them. Why the change? He told Grimm it was because of the writings and press Charles Darwin was getting and the changes of Victorian England.
After WWII, the headstones revealed that people began calling pets “family members” on the stones.
Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service.