For drama lovers and story tellers, take a walk on the wild side to what was once a little island in the middle of the Seine and discover some tall tales in Les Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques.
I like visiting cemeteries. I think of them as parks with dead people. Mostly they’re beautiful, peaceful places and not at all morbid. Sometimes maybe a little sad, in a wistful kind of way. And they can be a great spark for stories, relating what people did, who they were connected to, what happened to them. A celebration of life really.
Le cimetière des chiens is hidden away in the depths of Clichy, in the small town of Asnieres, on the banks of the Seine. I’d never heard of a pet cemetery. Never considered the possibility of one, or what happens to our four-legged friends once they’ve departed this life. Why I can’t say. So, I went out of curiosity, and the need of finding something different to do in a city I’ve visited many, many times.
The first surprise was the entrance gate. An impressive Art Nouveau archway, guarded by alert stone hounds. Tucked away the cemetery may be, but it’s no retiring wall-flower. And immediately visible, the statue of Barry, the St. Bernard. A child straddles his back, his arms clasped in the fur around Barry’s neck. The inscription reads: ‘He saved the lives of forty people. He was killed by the forty-first’. Blimey. That’s what I call ingratitude. Obviously somebody had a need for drama. Further research revealed that Barry wasn’t really killed by the forty-first – or only indirectly. He died of exhaustion after carrying the aforementioned forty-first to safety from a Swiss mountain pass.
Many of the animals remembered had done something heroic or extraordinary. Rin Tin Tin was a French dog found on a World War One battlefield by an American soldier when he was just five days old. He was taken to the States and stared in countless Hollywood films. He received several Academy Award nominations for best actor but was forced to decline on the grounds that he wasn’t human! When he died in Los Angeles in 1932 (in the arms of Jean Harlow) he was bought back to rest in his homeland. Also buried in the cemetery: a 1920’s Grand National winner; Moustache, the mascot of Napoleon’s Grand Armée, killed during the Spanish Campaign of 1811; and graves belonging to Drac, Tony and Marquise – dogs belonging to Romanian and Russian princesses exiled in Paris.
But of course all of the animals were all extraordinary to their owners. In a human cemetery inscriptions are mostly formulaic, we read that someone was a good husband, son, and father or that he will be missed. Sometimes there is a photo which gives imagination free-flight. Here there was no need for imagination. Everything was out there, in a glut of gut-wrenching grief. It was so intimate, so personal, so touching. I couldn’t hold back the tears. There were also photos. Thousands of bright eyes looking up with adoring glances, oozing vulnerability. Asking to be loved. That was the crux of it – it was just one big love fest. The human capacity and need for it, and the furry critter ability to give and receive it.
On a grave to Bebei: ‘You, our dog, more human than human. The most beautiful, the best of dogs. Our faithful companion of good and bad days. You will be in our hearts forever’. Bebei was buried with his son, Goliath and under his name was engraved – ‘You were just as great as your dad’. No higher accolade imaginable.
And it wasn’t just dogs and cats. On a gravestone to Cocette – a hen – with a cute little chicken drawing in one corner: ‘To my affectionate hen who lived sixteen years, faithful, inseparable companion, mourned by your mistress who remains inconsolable, to you I was attached, you will never be forgotten, regretfully, R.O.C. There was Kikki the monkey: ‘Sleep, my dear, you were the joy of my life’ and Bunga, the rabbit: ‘Missing you Bunga’. There are guinea pigs, fish, a sheep, horses, and apparently a bear, a lioness and a wolf.
There are over forty thousand animals buried in the cemetery ,which is still in use. We watched two women tending a grave, heads bowed, respectfully silent, tenderly touching flowers and headstone. What memories they must have had. There was so much care. Plants, flowers and ceramics, chewy bones and favourite toys – Arry the dog had a plastic dome of tennis balls atop his tombstone, forever engaged in a game of fetch. There were tombs of marble, stone dog kennels, and elaborate statues. For years the legend of a dog buried with a diamond collar circulated in Asnieres. In 2012 poor Tipsy’s grave was ransacked, his tombstone pulled down, and his skeleton strewn over the ground. It was only then that police confirmed the truth of what had been thought of as an urban myth. Tipsy’s collar, worth Euro 9,000 had disappeared. OTT? Extravagant? Perhaps.
But pets love us unconditionally. And so they teach us how to love. And that’s worth a lot.
Le cimetière des chiens. 4 pont de Clichy, Asnières-sur-Seine, Paris Metro: Gabriel Pèri. Line 13. Entrance Euro 3.50.