The ancient art of burying your dog

Some of the earliest hints of the shared living places of humans and dogs are actually are their dying places

By Laura Hobgood-Oster

Published April 6, 2014 2:00PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)
(Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

Excerpted from “A Dog's History of the World”

A large corner cabinet, carefully dusted and arranged, announced the centrality of dogs to this modest stone home in central Texas. The humans living here, a couple in their early sixties, spoiled and pampered the dogs. After lives of cuddling and napping on laps, when the time came for each dog to bid a final farewell, she or he had a new spot designated in the cabinet. The day I visited there were already fifteen small urns, each with a picture, name and the arrival and departure dates of a precious Chihuahua. In addition to the tiny dogs who had already taken their supposed, or at least hopeful, journey to the afterlife, the five current pet Chihuahuas bounced happily around the house. This was Chihuahua heaven while the dogs were alive and, based on the status of those in the memorial corner, the humans hoped for Chihuahua paradise after their death.

Thousands of generations ago humans and dogs paired up with each other. From the beginning the relationship has been more than pragmatic. Depths of meaning lie beneath the surface and, at times, come bubbling up, revealing something of the primal essence of this interspecies partnership. As humans started to ask questions about what matters, about why some live and others die, about suffering and love, dogs were already lurking in our shadows and in our memories.

These are all religious questions -- these deep questions of meaning. To understand truly the dog -- human journey, its religious nature must be acknowledged and comprehended.Even acknowledging that other animals have something to do with the religious foundations and sensibilities of humans can be a controversial claim. But prehistoric expressions of a quest for meaning frequently include other animals. Cave paintings, such as those in Chauvet, beg for interpretation as nascent religious texts. While the actual reason or reasons that Homo sapiens also became Homo religiosus may never be known, there is one widely dreaded tragedy of life that has certainly sent humans on a quest for understanding death.

And in this hunt to figure out why humans die, they often sought the company of dogs. From all appearances, or at least as far as the popular media covers phenomena, the last twenty years have witnessed the growth of a new “craze”—formal rituals for interring or at least memorializing dogs a different light on this apparent trend. Humans and dogs share intimate and forceful connections in life. But in addition to that powerful link, for thousands of years these two companion species have been bound together by and in death.

So, while this connection to dogs as significant subjects in the quest to comprehend or grapple with death might seem to be a relatively new, albeit powerful, religious phenomenon, deep historical roots provide insight into the long-standing relationship between humans, dogs, and their shared experiences of death, as well as their journeys into the afterlife.

Interestingly, some of the earliest hints of the human-dog shared living spaces are their dying places. Incidents of common interment, the joint ritual burial of humans and dogs, show up early in the archaeological record. Delving into this fascinating history of the dog’s journey into the afterlife, or at least the human speculation about this hoped for canine eternity, provides yet another window into the significance of this cross-species bond.

Something Old or Something New?

Commemorating and ritualizing the dog dead stretches back thousands of years. But relatively recently, during the Victorian Age in England, a vivid imagination of death merged with the rapidly growing idea of canine fidelity to generate a new focus on dog memorials. It was in this era, a type of golden age for many pet dogs, that the first modern pet cemetery was founded. Sentimental ideas about death and the afterlife are reflected in passionate and personal dog memorials.

In 1881 a little Maltese named Cherry, who belonged to frequent visitors at the park, died from old age. The family asked the keeper of the Victoria’s Gate Lodge if they, perchance, could bury Cherry in the back garden since the little dog had so loved visiting the park. The gatekeeper gladly agreed and, for the next several decades, pets were interred in this quaint, peaceful cemetery. The headstones clearly indicate a hoped-for afterlife for the beloved canines. Darling “Tiddy” 1895–1901, was remembered with this expectation: “Shall he whose name is love deny our loving friends a home above? Nay, he who orders all things for the best in paradise will surely give them rest.” And the headstone for Wee Bobbit, who died in 1901 after six years as a “most devoted friend,” reads, “When our lonely lives are o’er and our spirits from this earth shall roam we hope he’ll be there waiting to give us a welcome home.” Not only a statement of hope, the ideas on these headstones express a plea to the divine, a genuine request to grant a place in heaven for the adored, faithful dogs.

Across the Channel in France, the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques (Cemetery of Dogs and Other Domestic Animals) just outside of Paris was also established in the late nineteenth century. At that point a new law had gone into effect in Paris requiring pets to be buried at least 100 meters from the nearest home, rather than either being thrown out with the garbage or clandestinely buried in small yards or plots. Thus the first public dog cemetery in France opened to accommodate the new need for an interment space. Famous dogs, including “Rin Tin Tin,” the German shepherd movie star who originally hailed from France during World War I, are buried there, and monuments to dog heroes such as Barry, the Saint Bernard, fill the lawn. Barry’s headstone reads, “he saved the lives of forty people, he was killed by the forty-first” (apparently from exhaustion after carrying so many people to safety, not a deliberate attack on the dog hero). This Saint Bernard deserves the title of dog-martyr nonetheless. “Drac,” the pet of a Romanian princess (Elisabeth, who married George II, king of Greece, who was later exiled), also graces the lawn and gives us insight into Elisabeth’s situation as well, “Fidèle compagnon des heures tragiques; Ami précieux dans l’exil” (“Faithful companion during tragic times and precious friend in exile”). Apparently this Romanian woman found comfort in the fact that Drac (a fitting name for a Romanian hound) accompanied her to her new home. Less prominent canine inhabitants still have elaborate statues, some with framed images of the dog interred below, and touching memorials adorn the headstones. An interesting short tribute film provides a panorama of the graveyard, giving the viewer a sense of the intimacy expressed in these final canine resting places.

The nineteenth-century practice of establishing formal cemeteries for dogs and other pets expanded rapidly to the United States. Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, located just outside of New York City, was founded in 1896 by Dr. Samuel Johnson, a veterinarian who had also been instrumental in establishing the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The cemetery is still functioning and growing over a century later. Almost 70,000 pets (mostly dogs, though also cats, rabbits, and even a lion cub) are buried there. And Hartsdale is definitely not alone. From this same time period, stories of individual dogs and the people who cared about them enough to memorialize them after death are frequently shared.

One example from the opposite side of the United States is Faust, a tough little American water spaniel, who traveled to Alaska with his owner, the equally tough Frances E. “Fizzy” Fitz. Fizzy was one of the few women participating in the Alaskan Gold Rush of the early twentieth century. Images from the time show the two of them trekking through the frontier, mining for gold and surviving in the rough world of the Seward Peninsula in Alaska. As a successful woman living in a difficult and dangerous culture, Fizzy trusted Faust to take on such important roles as safeguarding their earnings. Fizzy kept her savings in a leather pouch on Faust’s collar. He had been her companion for sixteen years when he died, and this fact, combined with their rather extraordinary life together, earned him a lengthy obituary in the Seattle Daily Times in 1906. The memorial hailed him as “one of the best-known dogs of the Seward Peninsula” and remarked on his “varied and picturesque career.” Not only had he traveled “with the luxury of a prima donna over more than 25,000 miles,” he was “the only Journey dog ever permitted cabin passage on the steamship Victoria.” The remarkable, substantive obituary concluded with an indication of his burial place, the dog cemetery beyond Beacon Hill, close to his owner’s home in Seattle.

At first glance, it might seem possible that memorializing and interring dogs is a relatively new, western European and American phenomenon, merely a remnant of the Victorian cult of domesticity with its idealizing and humanizing of dogs. A seemingly obvious conclusion would be that when this idealization of faithful canines combined with a culture of sanitizing, memorializing, hiding, and denying death, dog cemeteries emerged. To a certain extent current practices of commemorating the canine dead do continue to reflect this particular Victorian sentiment and practice. But there is a kink in this theory because the roots are much deeper than the nineteenth century and they reveal amazing links between humans, dogs, and death that extend into the initial encounters between these two species.

Digging Into the First Canine Burials: Is It Ritual or Rubbish?

At the entrance of a 12,000-year-old dwelling at Ein Mallaha, an ancient site in the upper Jordan Valley, a human skeleton lies close to a large slab of limestone (thus indicating a ritual burial). The skeleton was curled on its right side (damage to the pelvis prevents sex determination, but the individual was old when she or he died). Under the skull, as if to provide a pillow, was the person’s left arm. The left hand, in turn, stretched out from under the person’s head to rest gently on the chest of a puppy, buried with this older person. Very significantly, the skeleton of the puppy was complete, not a skull alone or a collection of bones alone. This indicates that the puppy was viewed as an intact individual, who needed to remain such in death as well as life, rather than a symbol or tool. Based on the teeth and bones, the puppy was probably four to five months old at the time of death. It is a tender scene that suggests an affectionate relationship rather than a purely pragmatic one. The puppy was there because the deceased human was assumed to desire its presence in the afterlife for companionship. In other words, the pup was not a way of providing food in the afterlife, but rather was a companion in the journey.

There are other examples of remains of animals buried with humans in this ancient culture, a context that needs to be considered when pondering why this puppy was placed in the grave alongside the elderly human companion. A young man was buried with antlers on his head, possibly to equate him with hunting and antelopes or other deer-like animals. Another person was buried with a belt made from animal teeth. But the relational aspect of the puppy seems to be unique even amidst these myriad animal-associated grave goods. The dog was a complete skeleton -- a full animal -- buried as a whole in relationship to a whole human being. In other words, there was not just an item symbolizing the dog, but the actual dog as a whole creature.

Burials such as this one offer evidence that, from the earliest days of this interspecies connection, there was something more than solely a utilitarian or symbolic relationship. Rather, the shared evolution of humans and dog was and is as deeply ritualistic, religious, and sacred as it was and is pragmatic. This conclusion comes after considering myriad examples of intentionally and thoughtfully buried dogs all over the globe.

Much of the earliest archaeological evidence for dogs is connected with burial sites deliberately planned by humans. Over 14,000 years ago, the Bonn-Oberkassel dog was not Journey to the Afterlife only intentionally buried but was interred with humans. Pre-historic dog burials have been discovered on every continent (except Antarctica, where there were no wolves or humans).

Following the Bonn-Oberkassel dog, the oldest dogs found thus far are in Siberia and date to over 10,000 years before the present.

In the meantime, there is ample support for the claim that humans extended their relationship with dogs beyond the practical roles in hunting or guarding in this life and into whatever the next life might hold. This expanded role crossed cultural borders; it was widespread, and seems to have, at times at least, crossed hierarchical boundaries as well. Ritual recognition of dogs related to death was not just a frivolous practice of the privileged humans. In far northern Europe (Denmark and Sweden), for example, dogs were buried in the graves of people from different socio-economic classes, and dogs figured centrally in a variety of funerary rituals. In even these very cold climates, dogs were deliberately buried, crouched in a sleeping position and covered with red ochre. It appears that they were also interred with grave goods to carry them through into the afterlife.

While almost all of these early burials are obviously anonymous, as are the human burials, the name and life story of at least one ancient dog is well known because of the incredible attention paid to him after his death. In a burial ground dating from about 2,700–2,600 BCE and located not far from the famous Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, an inscribed piece of limestone reads,

The dog which was the guard of His Majesty. Abuwtiyuw was his name. His Majesty ordered that he be buried ceremonially, that he be given a coffin from the royal treasury, fine linen in great quantity, and incense. His Majesty also gave perfumed ointment, and ordered that a tomb be built for him by the gangs of masons. His Majesty did this for him in order that he (the dog) might be honored before the great god, Anubis.

The archaeologists who discovered this fascinating inscription suggest that the dog likely belonged to a servant of the ruler, but became attached to “His Majesty,” barking in order to protect him. Because of this fine canine service in life, the ruler decided to have the dog ritually buried in order to make sure that he would continue such devotion to him in the afterlife as well. No small expense went into the burial, indicating how important it was to the king to have this dog with him for eternity.

The practice of dog burials occurred frequently in Iron Age Britain as well, a time period that extends from about 800 BCE until the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 CE. Archaeological records note numerous “special animal deposits,” including one where the body of the dog was covered in large glacial pebbles. This same treatment was given to a number of human skeletons as well, suggesting that at least this particular dog was significant enough to warrant special attention in death. At another site a very small adult dog, a toy-sized breed, was carefully buried late in the period. This rare find—there is little evidence for toy dogs in Britain before the Roman conquest indicates that there might have been some early trading for very specific types of dogs occurring at that point. Maybe this small dog was a luxury item, a pampered pet for a powerful person whose love continued after death. At other sites large numbers of dog remains were uncovered, for example over fifty dog skulls were found in pits during excavations at Silchester.

The Mediterranean world continues to yield amazing archaeological discoveries related to intentional dog burials. Arguably one of the most significant, and definitely one of the most extensive, is the ancient canine cemetery at Ashkelon (in modern-day Israel) where well over 1,000 dogs were buried during the fifth century BCE. Scholars will never know exactly how many dogs were interred at Ashkelon since a portion of this burial ground is now under the sea, but the evidence is striking. Already over eight hundred dog graves have been excavated, with many more yet to be uncovered. The canines -- some very young, even fetal, others adults -- are carefully laid to rest on their side with their tail curled between their legs. There was obviously great care given to these burials and, quite likely, some sacred connection here. As the head zoologists of the dig point out, each burial was a “discrete event” since “no skewed heads, or other skeletal distortions that characterize animals that were just pitched into a convenient hole” appear. While the dogs could have played a sacred role, it is important to note that there is no evidence of sacrifice and the age range of the dogs represents a standard mortality spread from mature adults to puppies never having survived into adulthood. In other words, the dogs died of natural causes but were still held in such esteem as to be carefully buried. The lead excavator of the site, Lawrence Stager, suggests that the dogs served as part of a healing cult, maybe even related to the Mesopotamian goddess of healing herself, Gula. It is also interesting to note that the dogs buried at Ashkelon were typical Middle Eastern dogs for that time period. In other words, they were Mediterranean mutts. These dogs were not bred as smaller pets or as aids in hunting or herding, rather they were typical village dogs ritually interred.

During the period when this marvelous dog cemetery was founded at Ashkelon, the people living there were influenced by and in contact with Phoenician culture. Interestingly, archaeologists discovered several dog cemeteries dating to the same period (roughly the 5th century BCE) in other Phoenician influenced cities, though none nearly as impressive as Ashkelon. For example, at nearby Ashdod (also on the coast), archaeologists discovered seven carefully buried dogs. Individual dogs were interred at two other eastern Mediterranean coastal cities -- Berytus (modern-day Beirut) and Tel Dor -- as well.

By the time Hellenistic culture dominated the Mediterranean world (after Alexander the Great, d. 323 BCE), dogs figured centrally in myriad rituals and mythological systems related to death and the afterlife. Alexander himself had a beloved dog named Peritas whom, according to a report by the historian Plutarch, the conqueror raised from a pup. When Peritas, his dear companion and compatriot, died, the powerful Alexander had him buried with the same ceremonial recognition as a human hero. After his burial, Alexander named the city where Peritas rested for eternity after his deceased dog.

It is not surprising that Greeks held individual dogs in high esteem. In Homer’s epic Odyssey, the great dog Argus plays a seemingly small, yet very profound, role. Odysseus is returning home after twenty years, but he is disguised as a beggar in order to sneak into his house. As he approaches, Odysseus recognizes his dog Argus, whom he had raised and made into a powerful hunter. At this point Argus has been neglected and is extremely old; he is curled up on a pile of dung. In order to maintain his disguise, Odysseus simply states, “what a noble hound that is.” Argus, however, does recognize his master, even after twenty years. While he does not have the strength to stand up, he wags his tail and droops his ears in acknowledgment. Sadly Odysseus cannot respond, except for shedding a single tear and walking by Argus. Knowing that his master has returned, Argus dies. It is this model of canine fidelity and strength that is occasionally remembered and noted in dog burials in the Greek world.

While many of the examples of such burials are touching, one instance offers a particularly poignant window into the sacred role of dogs and death. Inside a well in the Greek town of Eretria, at least twenty-six dogs were buried with at least nineteen human infants. The dogs range in age from neonatal to adult, but the infants were all newborns. While the cause of death of the infants cannot be determined, the presence of specific coins dates this mass burial to the war of Chremonides (267–261 BCE). Maybe the infants, along with their dogs, were slaughtered by the enemy, or a contagious disease rapidly moved through Eretria causing the death of a number of newborns at once. Based on many of the mythologies of the time, which are elaborated more fully below, burying the dogs with these vulnerable children might have been a way to protect them as they journeyed into the afterlife.

With this eternal journey in mind, ancient Greek dog owners spoiled them and recalled them with fondness even in the afterlife. An interesting example was found behind the Stoa of Attalos, the main public building of the ancient Athenian market. Here, a fourth-century grave contained the skeleton of a dog with a large beef bone near his head, possibly food or a toy to sustain him in the underworld. At another location, these moving words were placed on a memorial stone for a deceased dog:

Thou who passest on the path, if haply thou dost mark this
Laugh not, I pray thee,
Though it is a dog’s grave; tears fell for me,
And the dust was heaped above me by a master’s hands,
Who likewise engraved these words upon my tomb.

It seems that Odysseus and Argus were not the only faithful dog-master pair in Greece. As the Greek period morphs into the Roman era in the Mediterranean world, dog burials remained part of the cultural heritage. Along the north wall of a Roman-era cemetery at Yasmina, in the city of Carthage in Tunisia, another quite moving human-dog burial was discovered. Here excavations uncovered the third-century CE burial of an adolescent/young-adult female in a carefully made grave topped with cobbles and tiles, and with the skeleton of an elderly dog at the girl’s feet. The dog was also buried with one of the few grave goods found in the cemetery, a glass bowl carefully placed behind its shoulder. The Yasmina dog, which probably resembled a modern Pomeranian, is an example of a toy breed. What is more remarkable about the dog is that, despite a host of physical problems including tooth loss that likely required him to eat soft foods, osteoarthritis, a dislocated hip, and spinal deformation that would have limited mobility, the dog had survived into his mid-to-late teens. He was clearly well cared for, and even death could not separate the dog from his owner. Studying the remains of dog burials, even those from thousands of years ago, often has an emotional impact on researchers. “Perhaps of all the archaeological cases for pets I can think of,” says Michael MacKinnon, an archaeologist from the University of Winnipeg, “I believe the Yasmina ‘sick’ dog is the most poignant.”

Ritual burials of dogs continued throughout Europe into the first century CE. In Sweden burial sites even contain multiple dogs in some of the more elaborate graves. One such grave, that of a warrior who died sometime in the seventh century CE, included four dogs of different types. One was an average height, two were tall and slender, and a final one was big and stocky. These dogs likely served different purposes in life; for example, the tall, slender ones seem to be sight hounds for hunting and the large stocky dog may have been a guard. Regardless, they were significant enough in the status of the warrior to be incorporated into his funerary ritual and burial.

But ancient dog burials are not limited to the Mediterranean world and northern Europe. The second-oldest dog remains excavated from a cave site in Japan, dating from the Jomon period between 8,500 and 8,000 years ago, appear to have been intentionally buried. At this location there were twenty-two dogs, the size of a modern shiba inu, interred. Carefully curled on their sides when they were buried, in a relaxed sleep-like position, they were gently arranged in death to mimic a comfortable position in life. These ancient dogs are likely the ancestors of the seven breeds of dogs eventually recorded as indigenous to Japan.

On the mainland of Asia, almost concurrently with the Jomon burials -- so between 9,000 and 7,800 years ago -- the oldest Chinese dog burials were also taking place. Eleven dogs were buried at Jiahu in southwestern China. A little over 1,000 years later, dog remains were found with human burials in China as well.

The practice also continued as humans migrated from the African-Eurasian contiguous landmass to new continents. In North America at the Koster site in Illinois, three domestic dog burials date to 8,500 years before the present, as early as the burials in East Asia. This means that the practice occurred relatively soon after the arrival of humans on the North American continent. One particularly rich region for dog burials is the southern tier of what is now the United States, with examples from Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi, some almost as old as those at the Koster site, dating back over 8,000 years.

By 6,600 years ago, dog burials were not just widespread in North America but were also associated with human remains. These very early human-dog connected burials occurred on the northwest coast. Here the tradition seems to continue, as people who lived in the area around the Puget Sound (Coast Salish people) buried dogs “ceremonially like humans."

While the burials date significantly later, the practice of burying dogs continued in South America. In Peru, a number of naturally mummified dogs have been recovered, including one dating back 3,000 years. But the vast majority of dog burials thus far discovered there took place about 1,000 years ago. In 2006 archaeologists working in an ancient cemetery near the city of Ilo in southern Peru found the well-preserved remains of eighty dogs interspersed with the burials of about 2,000 people. At that point, the Chiribaya people in Peru valued their dogs enough to make sure they had snacks after death (so they placed fish bones next to their noses), and to make sure they stayed warm (so they were wrapped in carefully woven llama-wool blankets). Some of the dogs are curled on their side with their heads resting gently on pillows.

For most of the 15,000 years that humans and dogs have lived together, they have also died together and sought the afterlife in each other’s company. Granted, this was likely not a choice made by the dogs and in some, perhaps most, instances, it was not a timely death for the canines who were forced to accompany humans to the grave. But over these millennia, as humans grappled with the meaning of death, and life, many of them found that dogs contributed in important ways to an understanding, not only of this world, but of whatever world happened after death. The careful, ritual burial of these dogs provided a window into the quest for meaning in the afterlife. And this was not the end of the story.

Excerpted from “A Dog's History of the World” by Laura Hobgood-Oster. Copyright © 2014 by Baylor University Press. Reprinted by arrangement with Baylor University Press. All rights reserved.

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