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‘Pet’ cemetery in Asnieres,Paris: human-animal space

2013 February 23

Anonymous human and faithful Douchka, Asnieres

I have just finished revising the article I have been working on discussing human-animal space in various ‘pet’ cemeteries including Hyde Park in London, Hartsdale outside New York and the Cimitiere des Chiens in Asnieres-sur-Seine in Paris. This is for a book on Animal Death  edited by Fiona  Probyn-Rapsey and Jay Johnston to be published by the University of Sydney Press later this year.

The Cimitiere des Chiens still functions in Asnieres-sur-Seine, just outside the city of Paris on the left bank side of the Seine beyond the Clichy bridge. When it was founded in 1899 by Georges Harmois and Marguerite Durand the cemetery was on land occupied by rag and bone men (‘chiffonniers’). Outside the city this  was a place set apart from the everyday where humans could mourn animals. In recent decades the cemetery has expanded onto adjacent land. It also is a place for living animals. Feral cats are regularly fed within the cemetery by named people who are regulated by the A.D.C.C. (Association de Defense du Cimitiere de Chiens et Autres Animaux).

Animal cemeteries are places of overlapping, if not competing, geographies in which human and animal are blurred in various ways. Certainly in some sense one can define such animal cemeteries as animal places, since they contain the corpses or cremated remains of animals. But these corporeal remains are never seen. All that is visible are human words and iconography and sometimes a photo of the animal when alive or an engraved representation in stone.

To an interested visitor – rather than a former companion – the physicality of the animal is, in some ways, less important that the way in which the animal is described, usually by an individual or couple of humans. Human emotions towards a dead animal are dominant but as many of the inscriptions suggest, such sentiment is reflective of a relationship crossing species boundaries.There are narratives that  describe an individual’s behaviour or characteristics, or even, in a few instances, the prizes won by pedigree cats or dogs such as ‘Ici Reposent les Premiers Komondors de Bergers Hongrois Celebres Champions Nationaux Internationaux et Mondiale’.

Across time the dominant sentiments are of the value the human has derived from the relationship such as Bebe ‘ Toi, notre chien, plus humain qu’ un humain…’. In many instances the animal death provides the human with an opportunity to talk about their own condition that has been ameliorated by the now dead animal. Thus the early gravestone to Douchka ‘compagne fidele dans mes jours de triste et de solitude 1894 – 1907’ and ‘A notre petit Marquis si fidele mort le 24 Juillet 1923 a l’age de 9 ans notre seul ami’. This continues in the recent past for example in the epitaph to a small black dog: ‘Sophie mon bebe nous avons eu 17 ans d’amour toi et tes petites soeurs vous avez remplace l’enfant que je n’ai pas eu. J t’aime a jamais. Ta petite Mere’.

Strikingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, there is the  constant feature of  positive and emotional engagement. While fashions in memorial stones or the language of loss may shift, an underpinning sentiment does cross time.  The human expressing emotion  often addresses  the dead but deemed receptive animal. Morris, Knight and Lesley have noted, ‘That pet owners believe more in animal emotion is likely due to the extent to which they have engaged socially with their own animals’. This understanding continues after the animal’s death.

Clearly such epitaphs illustrate human emotion towards the dead animal; but they do more than that. The cemetery itself has certain conventions: not least that those visiting will be sympathetic to the idea of remembering animal companions. It is a space that provides a safe location for humans to convey their positive emotion towards this particular animal-human relationship. Such emotion may more generally be subject to ridicule or derision. Companion animals – other than pedigrees who have genealogical breed charts that record the names of their parents and grandparents etc. – routinely have only one given name. The assumption is that they are looked after within a particular family and that if a surname is needed at all it will be that of the humans.  Although the names of pet animals are always stated, the names of the humans are not. Indeed it is quite unusual to have a full name. Thus human sentiments can be expressed anonymously in a quasi-public place. The sentiments expressed can be quite revealing about the condition of the human. As in the examples suggested above, it can include declaring oneself to be friendless apart from animal companionship. The ‘animal space’ in fact permits the most personal of human statements of their own condition and past emotional state.

Adrian Franklin has argued that in recognising the needs of others and possibilities of mutuality the ‘animal-human relation is not one characterized simply by strong sentiments, but also unconsciously challenging and dissolving the human-animal boundary itself.’ While such dissolving may be found in the emotional engagement expressed in animal cemeteries in some way there are also sharp divisions: the human is still living and thus able to express emotion or hopes for the future, while the dead animal, obviously, is not. However, the sight of feral cats wandering through Asnieres and being fed amongst the graves also reinforces the cemetery as a place of safety for animals.

tabby washing

One of the feral cats who live in Asnieres

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