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The French do cemeteries like no other nation. A tourist’s must-see list may include any number of Parisian cemeteries, with the most popular being the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, where sightseers pay homage to the likes of Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, and the Cimetière du Montparnasse, home to many Left Bank personalities such as Charles Baudelaire, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, among others. But off the beaten track is another gem, a burial ground that pays tribute to equally well-known stars such as Rin Tin Tin and Barry, the life-saving Saint Bernard.
The Cimetière des Chiens, established in 1899, is the oldest pet cemetery in the world and has an incredible history. Yet it is rarely visited these days. Set on the banks of the Seine, in the northwest Parisian suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine, the cemetery is slightly off the usual tourist route, but it’s well worth the short métro trip and brief walk to get there.
I was the only visitor on my morning trip there in February, and my experience was something I’ll not forget. It was very moving—simultaneously depressing and uplifting—to see how the pets were loved and missed, sometimes even decades after their deaths. The stories behind each epitaph could fill a book. Some have long been celebrated; for example, Barry the Saint Bernard has a large monument at the cemetery entrance. Barry belonged to the monks of the Alpine Hospice of the Great Saint Bernard, on the Swiss / Italian border, and, the monument says, after having saved the lives of 40 people, he was killed by the 41st.
Rin Tin Tin is another famous name. The German Shepherd television hero made 26 pictures for Warner Brothers before his death in 1932. A five-day-old Rin Tin Tin, his mother and some littermates had been rescued from a bombed kennel housing war dogs in France. Taken to America by Corporal Lee Duncan and other members of his battalion after World War I, the dog quickly found fame, and is said to have received 10,000 fan letters a week. After his death, Duncan arranged for Rin Tin Tin to be returned to the country of his birth. Even today, flowers and other gifts are left on his simple tombstone.
The composer of Carnival of the Animals, Camille Saint-Saëns, chose to lay his pets to rest here, as did novelist and dramatist Georges Courteline; actor, director and writer Sacha Guitry; and numerous princes and dukes. But for me, the real attraction of the cemetery is its celebration of ordinary pets—those upon whom the spotlight never shone, who never rubbed shins with famous people but who meant the world to their families. Dogs like Emma, “the Faithful companion and only friend in my life,” or Loulou, who, in 1895 at the age of only nine months, saved the family’s child from drowning, injuring herself in the process.
Other tearjerkers include Mémère, born in 1914, who was the mascot of the infantry for 15 years during World War I. The sculpture that adorns his grave poignantly stretches out a paw to a helmeted soldier. Or Frou Frou, who died of a broken heart after the death of her mistress in 1908.
Some sites are marked with a simple plaque and name, others with a photo, and many with incredibly decorative tombs and tributes. Besides flowers, I saw bowls of tennis balls, squeaky bones, leashes, soft toys—each one special to the dog lying beneath.
Strays are also interred here. In fact, there’s a monument to the 40,000th animal buried within the graveyard’s walls: a stray dog run over by a car near the cemetery gates in 1958. Many living strays can be seen hunting around the tombs and then resting on them, sunbathing or grooming.
Dogs are not the only pets commemorated at the cemetery; cats are also buried here. The graves of horses, pet rabbits, a monkey—whose tribute reads “Sleep, my dearest. You were the joy of my life”—not to mention birds, hamsters and even fish can be found as well.
The history of the cemetery is as interesting as the stories of the pets it contains. Before it came into existence, dead animals were usually thrown into the Seine, dumped around the city or discarded with rubbish. The health implications for a crowded city were immense, and a law came into force in 1891 requiring that corpses of domestic animals be interred at least 100 meters (328 feet) from habitation and that they be covered with soil at least one meter (3.28 feet) deep. And so the Anonymous French Society of the Cemetery for Dogs and Other Domestic Animals was founded on May 2, 1899, by attorney Georges Harmois and journalist and feminist Marguerite Durand. The cemetery, the first of its kind in the world, was officially opened that summer.
Marguerite Durand was an incredible character, an actress and rebel with multiple causes. She played many roles at the Comédie-Française, and then turned to journalism—a career move that was to change her life. After being sent by Le Figaro on an undercover assignment at an international feminist conference, she became a staunch advocate of women’s rights, publishing a daily feminist newspaper, La Fronde, in 1897. A leading suffragette, she organized several trade unions for female workers, lobbied for women to be involved in law and politics, and dedicated her life to promoting women’s rights. Her other passion was animals, and she was often seen strolling around Paris parks with her pet lion, Tigre, whom she had raised as a cub in her garden. (Tigre is also buried at the cemetery that Durand was responsible for creating, but, try as I might, I couldn’t find her. It’s a good excuse for another visit next time I’m in Paris!)
The grand entrance to the cemetery, designed by renowned Parisian architect Eugène Petit, features a portal in Art Nouveau style, flanked by two entrances for pedestrians. After its creation, the cemetery became increasingly successful, but later developed chronic difficulties. It closed briefly in 1987 and endured various changes of ownership and rescue plans; since 1997, it has been managed by the Asnières town council, and its future seems secure.
In a country renowned for its adoration of le chien, it’s not surprising that people have created such a picturesque place in which to celebrate their dogs’ lives. As one inscription notes, “Lover of the sea, may the Seine cradle your final repose.”
Photography by Dominique Dupire