At first glance, it’s easy to mistake Hartsdale Pet Cemetery for a traditional burial ground. Maybe after a few moments, you’d notice that the markers, made mostly of granite or marble, are slightly smaller than classic headstones. Some of the names may seem familiar (Tina, Jessica, Max) while others—Meatball, Pinky Doodle, Mr. Whiskers—might tip you off that this isn’t a somber repository for human remains.
But it’s the epitaphs that really bring home the feeling that this is not your typical cemetery. The heartfelt sentiment that you encounter within seconds of entering the well-manicured Hartsdale grounds can be overwhelming: Dillon was a little fluffy white dog, who “loved biscuits, sticks, snow, fetch, burgers, walks, and sitting outside.” Hodge was “a good gray cat.” Sport may have been “born a dog,” but he “died a gentleman.” Fudge was “a most remarkable cat,” and Woodstock was “one hell of a cat often mistaken for a meatloaf.” Sandy was “the best dog in America,” while Spot was “the best dog in the world.”
Tara was, simply, “The best cat ever.”
“You just don’t see these kinds of emotions expressed at human cemeteries,” says Brian Martin, manager of Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. When most people are buried, their grave is marked with a stone containing their name, birth, and death dates—and little else. At Hartsdale, however, people seem much more comfortable expressing just how much their pet meant to them, engraving their stones with phrases such as: “The love of my life,” “The most loving and sincerest friend I ever had,” “I wait to join you,” and “Irreplaceable.”
“There’s a lot of love here,” says Martin.
America’s first pet cemetery
In the late 1800s, New York City made it illegal to inter pets in human cemeteries or public parks within city limits (as of 2017, that is no longer the case). In 1896, a distraught client called Dr. Samuel Johnson, the official state veterinarian, after her dog died, saying she couldn’t bear to dispose of his body. Dr. Johnson offered to inter her dog at his orchard, located about 25 miles north of the city in Hartsdale.
As word spread, Johnson received requests from other bereaved pet owners, and America’s first official pet cemetery was born. A 1905 feature in The New York Times increased its recognition and prestige, and today, the 5-acre cemetery is the final resting place of more than 70,000 animals. Although the wrought-iron entrance gate reads “Hartsdale Canine Cemetery,” all beloved animals—regardless of species—may go to Hartsdale.
There aren’t too many celebrity animals buried here, but Hartsdale does have several pets of famous owners, including Mariah Carey’s cat, Clarence. The most exotic animal is a lion named Goldfleck. Purchased from the Ringling Brothers circus by a Hungarian princess, Goldfleck lived with his eccentric owner in the Plaza Hotel in New York—lounging in the suite’s bathtub—until his death in 1912. Goldfleck’s white marble headstone (located just outside of the cemetery’s office) reads: “Beneath this stone is buried the beautiful young lion Goldfleck, whose death was sincerely mourned by his mistress Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy, New York, 1912.”
“Anything that anyone has ever considered a pet we have buried here,” says Martin. The majority of burials are still dogs and cats, but Hartsdale has also interred rabbits, ferrets, snakes, turtles, guinea pigs, horses, lizards, rabbits, monkeys, and even humans.
Nearly 700 people—or more specifically, their cremated remains—are buried alongside their pets. “Here you can have a Jewish cat buried next to a Christian dog,” says Martin. “There aren’t sections for different animals or different religions—everybody’s all mixed together.”
Lizards and lions
There are depictions of animals everywhere you look, including bas-relief carvings, etchings, statues, and ceramic portraits affixed to headstones. Hartsdale has two mausoleums: one built in 1924 and the other in 2005—and even one dog house-shaped marker. The oldest surviving marker is for Dotty, “Beloved pet of E.M. Dodge,” inscribed with the date September 16, 1899. The tallest monument—which stands over 6 feet tall—is dedicated to Grumpy, a bulldog who died in 1926: “His sympathetic love and understanding enriched our lives.”
The centerpiece of Hartsdale Cemetery is the War Dog Memorial, located on top of a hill. The monument, unveiled in 1923, features a bronze German Shepard wearing a blanket emblazoned with the symbol of the Red Cross. Dedicated to the memory of war dogs, it was “erected by dog lovers to man’s most faithful friend for the valiant services rendered in the World War.”
Every June, Hartsdale holds a ceremony to honor service dogs of all kinds. The cemetery is home to several dogs that served in wars, including Scamp, a WWII canine soldier, and Joachim, who served in Vietnam. Police dog burials draw huge crowds, and there are several cenotaphs paying tribute to dogs that helped search for survivors in bombings and terrorist attacks. A headstone for Yahtzee, a guide dog, features a portrait of him and his visually-impaired owner with the epitaph “My Guiding Angel.”
“You don’t have to bury a pet,” says Martin. So while most of the animals buried here might not be household names, they obviously made a big impact on someone in their short lives—even if not everyone understands the need to spend thousands of dollars to memorialize the family lizard.
“People come here and say that their friends and family think they’re crazy for wanting to bury their pet,” says Martin. “We say, not only are you not crazy, but look at all of the people—since the 1890s—who have felt the same way that you’re feeling right now.”
The Peaceable Kingdom
A lot of Hartsdale’s burials come from nearby cities, including New York: “It’s such a pet friendly city,” says Martin. “But a lot of people don’t have yards, or don’t intend to be in the same place forever. They know this is a safe place for their pet.”
People burying their first pet at Hartsdale will often also have their current—very much alive—pets in mind. Family plots (which vary in size and price) containing more than one animal are common. The smallest hold cats and tiny dogs, while a Great Dane or Bernese Mountain Dog would require the XL. Hartsdale doesn’t have the space or resources to bury anything larger, but the cremated remains of several horses are interred here.
Plot-holders can choose to pay an annual maintenance fee, or enter the perpetual care fund for a one-time fee. When pet owners die themselves or move away, surviving family members not keen on paying for the upkeep on a grave for an animal they never met can call Hartsdale: “When their parents die, kids ask us to release the family pet’s grave, saying, ‘I never knew that dog,’” says Martin. If an annual bill goes unpaid, Hartsdale waits several years—much more generous than the legally-required 180 days—before exhuming and cremating the remains. The ashes are scattered on the grounds, and the plot is resold.
Thanks in no small part to Stephen King, people often have the wrong perception when it comes to pet cemeteries. Far from being creepy, Hartsdale embodies its “peaceable kingdom” nickname. More than anything, it’s a testament to love—and it’s almost impossible to walk around the grounds without tearing up thinking about how much love people have for their pets.
And unless every person opts for the perpetual care scenario, theoretically, Hartsdale—which sits on deeded land and is the only pet cemetery in the country listed on the National Register of Historic Places—will never run out of space for dignified burials of beloved family members with silly names. The fact that Fido will never be disturbed in order to build a luxury apartment building offers peace of mind for anyone concerned about the future of their pet’s remains. As long as you pay that maintenance fee, legally required in the state of New York, “Your pet will be here long after you are gone,” says Martin.
‘A very rewarding job’
The Martin family has been running Hartsdale since 1974. Edward Caterson Martin, Sr.—the father of the cemetery’s current director, Edward Martin, Jr.—was a master stone engraver. He created many of the monuments that you can still see at Hartsdale today.
As manager, it’s Brian Martin’s job to help grieving owners through the burial process, and Hartsdale provides services for every step of the way. They offer transportation within the tri-state area, viewings at the cemetery, and help with headstones, flowers, and grave maintenance. Pets are buried in small wooden or metal caskets—almost identical to what you’d see at a human funeral, except smaller. Hartsdale does have a crematory on their grounds, although it is no longer owned by the Martin family. Animals are buried naturally (not embalmed) and owners are encouraged to have one last viewing.
“People are often surprised at how peaceful their pet looks,” says Martin. “I was absolutely devastated when my dog died, so I know how hard it is. People thank me all the time for helping them get through a very difficult time. It’s a very rewarding job.”
Hartsdale is still very much an active cemetery and although death is unpredictable, Martin says that they average one burial per day. The grounds are open every day of the year except New Year’s Day; holidays are popular times to visit, as are the pet’s birthday or the anniversary of its death. When I visit in early May, baskets and stuffed rabbits—remnants from Easter—still decorate the graves of the dearly departed.
The cemetery “provides refuge to visiting pet owners, and a chance to reflect on times past with beloved companions,” writes Hartsdale vice president—and Brian’s brother—Edward C. Martin III, in his book, The Peaceable Kingdom in Hartsdale. “Every day many come, even years later, to express their enduring love.”
If you go
Hartsdale is open, weather permitting, Monday–Saturday 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m., Sunday 9:30 a.m.–4 p.m., Holidays 9:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m., and closed on New Year’s Day. It’s a 15-minute walk from the Hartsdale Metro North train station.