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Le cimetière des chiens
(The Cemetery of the Dogs)
Why feature a dogs' cemetery?
No, we haven't put this on the wrong website! Asnières-sur-Seine is a suburb of Paris, France, to the north-west of the city, just west of the river (on 'la rive gauche') and not too far from Charles de Gaulle international airport. It is also home to what is thought to be the oldest public pet cemetery in the world, 'Le cimetière des chiens', or 'Dogs' Cemetery'. Founded in 1899, it opened towards the end of summer that year, since when many thousands of animals have been buried there. It contains not only dogs, but a fair number of cats and a variety of other species, including a lion, a monkey, a racehorse, mice, birds, rabbits and more even fish.
Although not strictly a museum in the conventional sense, the cemetery is of historical interest and does contain memorials dating back well over 100 years, so we felt this was the best place to feature it on our site.
The initiative for its creation followed a French law of 1898 that aimed to put an end to the common practice up until then of simply throwing dead domestic animals out with the household garbage, or tossing their bodies into the river. The new law decreed that domestic animals could be buried, provided they were at least 100 metres (about 110 yards) from human dwellings and were covered by at least a metre (just over 3 feet) of earth.
The founders of the cemetery, lawyer Georges Harmois and journalist Marguerite Durand, formed a company and acquired a strip of land on a small island near the Pont de Clichy, which is where it remains today; although the site is no longer an island it is close to the river. The cemetery is still in use, although apparently many residents of Asnières are unaware of its existence. A grand entrance, in art nouveau style, was designed by Parisian architect Eugène Petit.
Originally there were plans to incorporate a 'columbarium' but whether a dovecote or a vault for funerary urns I'm not clear and a museum devoted to domestic animals, but these were not realised and only the gardens, the entrance and the cemetery itself came to fruition. There were originally separate quarters designated for dogs, cats, birds and other species, but today it does not seem that these distinctions have been maintained.
Although very successful initially, the enterprise has suffered chronic difficulties over the years, and by 1986 severe financial problems caused the administrative council to decide to stop any further activity and to close it for good from September 1987. However, supporters and lovers of the old cemetery, dismayed by the decision, had other ideas and started to mobilise. As a result the mayor's department of the town prepared a plan to save it and requested the state authorities to list the site as one of historical interest. Eventually this was agreed and it was recognised as being of 'picturesque, artistic, historical and legendary interest' and its immediate future was secured. Work was done to consolidate the river bank at the site, and from 1 February 1997 the community of Asnières took over responsibility for the cemetery.
Views of the cemetery
Just inside the site, near the entrance, the visitor is greeted by a large and elaborate memorial dedicated to the legendary St Bernard dog Barry (left), who died in 1814. According to the inscription he was responsible for saving 40 lives in the Swiss Alps, including that of a young boy trapped on an icy, inaccessible ledge; but it states that the dog was killed by the 41st person. Barry himself is not actually buried here: his body was stuffed and is displayed in the Swiss Natural History Museum in Bern.
Another famous cemetery 'resident' is the original Rin Tin Tin, canine star of early films in the 1920s and 30s (pictured right); at one time he also had his own radio show. The reason he is buried here is that he was a French dog, rescued from a bombed-out dugout in Lorraine by an American serviceman during WW1 and taken to the US. When he died it was thought fitting to return him to his native land. Other celebrated animals buried here include the dog Prince of Wales, whose memorial says that he appeared on the stage of the Théâtre du Gymnase over 400 times in 1905/6; Kroumir, Henri de Rochefort's cat, said to have died of grief four days after his master; and animals that belonged to well-known figures such as composer Camille Saint-Saëns and film actor, director and playwright Sacha Guitry, as well as various princes and dukes. There are also the graves of several French police dogs that died in the line of duty in the early part of the twentieth century.
The Asnières pet cemetery provides sanctuary for a number of living domestic cats who have the run of the place. They are not feral and although some are wary, others are quite willing to greet and pass the time of day with a stranger especially if that person carries a few cat biscuits! These cats are fed regularly and are supported by an organisation that looks after their welfare. They have a small shelter with a cat flap at the back of the cemetery, where they can take refuge if they wish.
The memorials range from simple ones such as that to Zita (left) to much more elaborate confections (right). Purr 'n' Fur is a website about cats, so below we picture a number of other memorials to beloved felines, with inscriptions translated from the French. You can see that it is often the custom to include an image of the pet on the memorial, which I find very appropriate.
I recommend a visit here to any animal lovers with a bit of time to spare when visiting Paris. It's not hard to reach and is a tranquil, attractive and interesting place.
Statues and a few older memorials at the cemetery
Finally, a selection of old postcards,
See also our page on the PDSA Animal Cemetery at Ilford in Essex, part of our Cats in Wartime series. Although the emphasis of the article is on Dickin Medal recipients buried there (in particular, Simon of the Amethyst), the information and images may be of interest.
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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.
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