What do changes in our beliefs about the death of our pets over the past century say about the relationship we have with our companion animals? In episode 90, Eric Tourigny from Newcastle University’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology discusses his research into historic pet cemeteries and how they reveal our evolving feelings toward these animals, from beloved pets to valued family members with whom we may hope to reunify in an afterlife. His open-access article “Do all dogs go to heaven? Tracking human-animal relationships through the archaeological survey of pet cemeteries,” was published on October 27, 2020 in the journal Antiquity.
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Hosts / Producers
Ryan Watkins & Doug Leigh
How to Cite
What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers
Eric Tourigny: By recording the epitaphs and the words that people use and the ways that they record the gravestones, you can reconstruct both the relationship that people had with animals during their lifetime, and the relationship that they hope to have – or they expect to have – in an afterlife or after-death.
Ryan Watkins: This is Parsing Science, the unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science, as told by the researchers themselves. I’m Ryan Watkins.
Doug Leigh: And I’m Doug Leigh. Today in Episode 90 of Parsing Science, we’ll talk with Eric Tourigny from Newcastle University in the UK about his research into historic pet cemeteries and how they reveal our evolving feelings toward these animals, from beloved pets to valued family members with whom we may hope to reunify in an afterlife. Here is Eric Tourigny.
Tourigny: Hello, my name is Eric Tourigny and I am an archaeologist at Newcastle University. I’m originally from Sudbury, Ontario in Canada. I grew up there went to university there, Laurentian University; studied anthropology. And then I went on to do a Master’s at Memorial University of Newfoundland in archaeology. And I spent three years working as an archaeologist in British Columbia. So moving from center of the country to one coast to then another, before finally moving overseas to the UK, where I did my PhD at the University of Leicester, in archaeology. But this is my first ever gravestone study. I’m trained as a sole zooarchaeologist, which is a combination zoology and archaeology. And then I’m a historical archaeologists, as well as zooarchaeologist, meaning I study the more recent period of history, so I focused on the last 300 years. Which, in archaeological terms … you know, my colleagues think of me as a very modern scholar … or a scholar of a very modern period, rather, because they’re all studying, you know, prehistory or the Romans, or Medieval period, if they’re treading on modernity. And so what I do is I look at animal bones recovered from archaeological sites. Few people realize how animal bones are one of the most common finds and archaeological sites. Usually they’re the remains of past meals that people have had … bone fragments. And what I do is I identify these broken up pieces of bone to the species and I look at, you know, age at death, species present, body portion present. And I can reconstruct not just what people used to eat, but past relationships with animals. So this foray into cemetery studies is quite new for me, but it’s been quite exciting.
Watkins: As so zooarchaeologist, Eric studies, the remnants of animals left in the archaeological record, often found in the waste that humans have discarded after meals, known as faunal remains. But his current study examines fauna that we have created to remember and mourn the loss of our pets: gravestones found in pet cemeteries. To begin our conversation, Doug and I were curious to hear how Eric got interested in the archaeology of where some of us inter our pets.
Interest in zooarchaeology
Tourigny: So I was actually … I was working on my PhD at the time and my PhD was on reconstructing diets of early immigrants to Toronto. So Toronto is quite a recent city in the grand scheme of North America. And I was looking at an archeological site that was associated with a British immigrant in 1840. And there was a box – I was looking at the animal bones – and there was a box that I opened, and it was … there was just a dog in there. And it was a complete dog, which is unusual. Usually, you find just broken up pieces of animals, if you’re looking at diets. And what this was, was a back yard dog burial from the 19th century. And at first, I thought, “You know, this isn’t relevant to me, I’ll just put it aside.” But actually, the dog was bigger than the biggest Arctic wolf we had in our reference collection. It was huge. It was massive. And it was full of disease on it, or evidence of having various infection. Actually, I thought it might be tuberculosis. And I thought, “Oh, this is great. I’ll bring it back to the lab. We’ll study it. This will be like one of the few records of tuberculosis in dogs in the archaeological record.” It turned out not to be tuberculosis. But it got me to research, you know, what were people doing with their pets after they died? Is this … is a backyard burial a common thing as it is today in the 19th century, or, you know, what were … what else were they doing? And then I started doing research and I found out that actually, it’s in the Victorian era in Britain that you see the first public pet cemeteries. And human cemeteries for a long time for archaeologists and historians have been like a treasure trove of information on reconstructing past human relationships. And I thought, “Well, why not do the same thing with with pet cemeteries? Why can’t we use them as a way to track changes in human animal relationships over time?”
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Gravestones in pet cemeteries
Leigh: As examining them doesn’t require excavation or the use of ground penetrating radar, gravestones are singularly informative artifacts for researchers. And since grave markers are essentially documents engraved in stone, these relics have proven to be fertile ground for learning about how our views on mortality have changed over time. Up next, Eric explains what can be learned from their presence in pet cemeteries.
Tourigny: The gravestones … and the text on the gravestones, and their design, the symbols put on them … are all sort of chosen by the people – those who are grieving the survivors, if you will – to specifically reflect something about the relationship that they held with their pet, whether consciously or subconsciously. And by recording the epitaphs and the words that people use, and the ways that they record the gravestones, you can reconstruct both the relationship that people had with animals during their lifetime, and the relationship that they hope to have – or they expect to have – in an afterlife or after-death. And what I found is that the pet’s role in life changes over time. And in the 19th century, essentially, you see a lot of references to terms like “pet friend, “companion.” But over time those words, the word pet sort of disappears or is used less often. You still see the word, “friend and companion.” But the pet’s name is no longer on its own on the tombstone, it starts to appear with a family surname. You know, you’re not just getting Spot, but you’re getting Spot Smith.
So a common tradition in gravestones is to put the commemorator’s his name at the bottom of the gravestone, because the act of erecting a memorial is not as much about the deceased as it is about the person who’s grieving the deceased. And it was common thing in human cemeteries to just put your name at the bottom – you know, if you were erecting the gravestone for someone else – to put your name at the bottom. And this is the case for pet cemeteries as well. So you see people’s names or initials at the bottom of the gravestone, except in the 19th century, it’s the initials and sort of fast forward to the 20th century, about post World War Two. Rather than seeing people’s initials or names, you start seeing the words “mummy and daddy,” suggesting that that relationship is going from friend-pet to family member. And the other big trend is what people think will happen to their animals in the afterlife. You know, will their pet their friend, their family member, will they go to heaven? Will they reunite in heaven? And of course, this is all tied into the debate of whether or not animals have souls, which itself is a whole other story. But what people believed would happen, or would people were hope would happen is all evidenced in the stones. So in the 19th century, when such an idea of animals having souls and reuniting in heaven was a lot more controversial, you see very few headstones suggesting that animals would go to heaven. You would see instead inscriptions that hope for it, but without explicitly saying so. So there’s one that says, “Could I hope we meet again, it would lighten half my pain.” And there was one for Wee Bobbit, who died in 1901. It says, “When are lonely lives are over in our spirits from this earth shall roam, we hope he’ll be there waiting to give us a welcome home.” So it’s all about hoping. And again, you fast forward to sort of mid 20th century, post World War Two. Society’s becoming a lot more secular, maybe people are more daring to suggest animals are going to heaven. And so you get inscriptions like, “God bless until we meet again,” you know this certainty: there’s conviction that there’s a reunification.
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History of pet cemeteries
Watkins: In classical Greek society, poets sometimes wrote very moving epitaphs for dogs to be inscribed on markers over the pet’s grave. And then the cosmology of the Persian Zoroastrians, dogs ranked next to humans in both this world and the next. Indeed, in the fifth to third centuries BCE, hundreds if not thousands of dogs were interred in the city of Ashkelon, some 50 kilometers south of Tel Aviv. So Doug and I were interested in learning more about the first known and pet cemetery in the UK.
Tourigny: So when I started this project, there was one cemetery that I really wanted to survey, and that’s the Hyde Park Pet Cemetery in central London. And that is the first public pet cemetery in Britain. So it started in 1881, when the owner of a dog named Cherry approached the groundskeeper at Hyde Park and said, you know, “Cherry just died. We’d love to bury him in the park that he enjoyed most right.” This was the park where he had his daily walks. And the groundskeeper said, “Yeah, that’s essentially that’s no problem.” But he couldn’t bury Cherry just anywhere in the park. But the groundskeeper was actually living in the park: he had a private house and a private little backyard and within the park, so he put Cherry in his private back garden. And, and then after Cherry died another dog called Prince – this was a Yorkshire Terrier – died as well. But Prince was the dog of the Duke of Cambridge at the time. So this was a royal dog, and he received a spot next to Cherry. And then the person who occupied this property, I think, made a little business out of it. And burying dogs all of a sudden became fashionable and within a matter of a few years, that space was just filled with hundreds and hundreds of pets, mostly dogs. And those are the gravestones that I recorded and still survive today. So there’s about 500 – or close to 500, gravestones there – representing close to about 1000 animals. Some animals, you know, some single gravestones can be used for multiple animals. And I also surveyed the PDSA Pet Cemetery in Ilford just outside of London – it’s like a London suburb – and it has over 1000 animals buried in it from the 1920s through to the 1990s, I believe. And then I surveyed two pet cemeteries in the city where I lived. One was from 1946, or 47, through to the 1980s, and another one from the 1960s through to the 1990s. And the reason I chose all these four cemeteries together was because, well, a) they were quite large, they had quite a few headstones in them. But they also covered a full 100 year period, and I thought that was a decent amount of time to track changes in relationships.
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Recording and analyzing graveyards
Leigh: In 2000, Harold Mytum, from the University of Liverpool, published Recording and Analyzing Graveyards. In it, he sets the standards for how information from cemeteries, including gravestones, should be documented. Next, Eric tells us how he applied Mytum’s standards developed for human cemeteries to his study of pet graves.
Tourigny: He created essentially just a recording form for human cemeteries, or from human gravestones. The form includes everything from just, you know, a space to record the text and a space to record the symbols. But also, you know, how to record the size of the gravestone, the design – like the overall shape of the gravestone – what type of headstone it was. So there’s there’s different types. You can have, you know, the flat stones, ledger type stones just laying flat on the ground surface. Or you can have proper headstones and even you have tombs and mausoleums, in some cases, although I’ve never seen a mausoleum to a pet. So sort of a recording system for almost every possible type of headstone shape imaginable. And so you just kind of give a quick code to help you do the recording quickly. You also include in there information on gravestone material, the type of font used, the type of lettering or inscription method used: you know, whether it was engraved or if it’s inlaid, or embossed. You need to record sort of the conditions of the headstones: are they falling apart, are they still standing straight? All the additional features to the headstones. So some come with curbs or, you know, urns to hold flowers or additional text. So essentially, the recording sheet ensures that you record each and every stone in a very systematic manner so that you don’t forget anything. Because you can imagine at the end of a full day’s recording, when you’re on your 40th, gravestone for the day – I could do about 40 a day, and the pet cemeteries – that you could easily forget to record certain things. And then you end up back in the office or in the lab, you know, processing this data. And you realize, “Oh, I didn’t record this for this grave.” Or, “I didn’t record this in the same way for this grave as I did for that gravestone.” And you have more trouble, sort of, comparing. So it’s just a way of making sure all these records that you take are taken the exact same way each time. It sounds simple enough, but actually, it’s quite difficult to do in practice because each gravestone is unique, or has some unique aspects to it. And you want to make sure to record everything.
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Watkins: The relationships between pets and their humans can appeal to everyone from anthropologists and sociologists to the average pet owner. The human-pet bond has evolved over at least the past 12,000 years rooted, perhaps, as far back as 100,000 years ago, out of our ancestors interest in hunting and domesticating animals. Doug and I were curious what Eric learned about more recent human-animal relationships from the graves of sites he recorded.
Tourigny: These cemeteries are reflective of the values that we hold towards animals and what we, at various points in time, cherish most in pets. So you see in the Victorian cemeteries: the same words tend to come up with describing dogs. And they have to do with obedience, faithfulness, loyalty. These, like, Victorian ideals that show you what people thought is “a good dog” in the 19th century. “Who’s a Good Boy?,” essentially. You know, it’s a dog that’s going to be faithful, obedient, loyal. Those kinds of adjectives can change through time. But, that being said, there hasn’t been that much change … now, even, we still use a lot of the same adjectives to characterize dogs. But we are commemorating more and more different animals in our pet cemetery. So there’s the older pet cemeteries used to be mostly dogs, but now you’re getting more cats in the pet cemeteries. And you see, yes, you start to see other animals as well. So the research I’ve done so far is focused on a handful of cemeteries, some really big cemeteries in the UK. I’d like to do more research on other cemeteries to see if there’s regional variation in the way people approached human-animal relationships, their urban rural differences, but also like to see how other species are commemorated. The problem is that there is no central database I can research. Like, I can’t just Google or go to an archive and go “Where are all the pet cemeteries?” or “Where all the pet memorials?” They’re everywhere in this country, anyways: they’re all over the place. You know, whether it’s individual plaques or gravestones to individual animals here and there, or if it’s a full-on pet cemetery. You know, there’s one in almost every town, but I don’t know of them. So one of my projects, I called it the Finding Fido Project. And it’s asking members of the public to just sort of email me and contact me to tell me where their local gravestones are, and I’ve had loads of people contact me since this research has been made a bit more public.
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Religious symbolism in pet cemeteries
Leigh: Cemeteries are nearly universal, and have appeared in virtually every culture and civilization throughout time. Even the earliest nomadic cultures built permanent dwellings for their dead. And from the dawn of organized religions, cemeteries have played a critical role in understanding people’s life cycle among many faiths. Eric shares what he discovered about changes in the expression of religiosity as told through pet gravestones after this short break.
Leigh: Here again is Eric Tourigny.
Tourigny: Yeah, I think one of the starkest contrasts was the fact that in the 19th century, there was no religious connotation at all – or there were no religious symbols on the gravestones – gravestones were quite plain. Out of, I think, out of close to 500 gravestones, only two had a very small cross on them. There was a handful that suggested “Maybe we’ll meet again,” and there were a few that had referenced specific Bible verses. But those verses were themselves quite vague and open for interpretation. One mentions how all beasts in the forest or mine, sayeth, the Lord, so something like that. Another reference to how it’s all God’s will. And by God has a plan. None of them specifically said, you know, “animals go to heaven,” or that “animals have souls.” But then you fast forward to post World War Two. And I say, post World War Two, because most of the gravestones I studied came from that period anyways, not necessarily that this change happened post World War Two. But you see crosses on gravestones everywhere. I forget the number of cases, but it was in the hundreds: there were, you know, hundreds of gravestones had a cross symbol on it. And the notion was not that “maybe we’ll meet again,” it was “Yeah, we will meet again.” There was more certainty there.
The thing that first came to my mind was, you know, this is really strange, because as we progress into the 20th century, you know, society is becoming more secular. So how come you seem more allusions to religion and souls and afterlife in a more secular time? And I think it’s not because there was an increase in belief in the afterlife for animals. I just think people were less afraid to proclaim it, to say it on a permanent public, gravestone marker. I was doing some research in pet funerals and what people would do prior to the burial. And I came across this newspaper report from Edinburgh in 1885, where a woman’s cat died. And she held a full funeral procession down the streets to the churchyard and buried her cat in the churchyard. And throughout the whole procession, a large crowd gathered and was sort of yelling in their direction, and really upset by the fact that this cat was being given a Christian burial reserved for humans. And at the end of the funeral, the crowd immediately excavated the coffin, took the cat out and broke the coffin. You can easily imagine how somebody in the 19th century would have been quite weary about making such a controversial statement on the gravestone such as “my pet is going to a Christian heaven” or “has a soul,” for fear that, you know, the gravestone might be vandalized, or worse.
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The bonds between pets and humans
Watkins: The four cemeteries Eric examined represents 100 years of humans’ commemoration of our pets. So Doug and I wondered what patterns in the graves of pets he found to be most impactful.
Tourigny: One of the things that sort of struck me most – like one of the constants through time – was how significant the bond between pet and owner was. And how really heartbroken some people were at the loss of their pets. And you can read it in the stones, you know, it’s … some are like, just full of grief, you know. Like, one says “has brought sunshine into our lives, but took it away with her,” or he “asked for so little and gave so much,” you know, “so lonely without my doggy.” These kinds of really emotional statements, they can be quite sad actually going through them, walking through these, these spaces. And I think it points to two things. One, the fact that the human-animal relationship was just as strong in the past as it is today, even if people didn’t express it publicly. And that’s something that is a constant through time, right? It’s the same of the 19th century as it was today, as it is today. And when that relationship is lost, you know, for some people, it’s even more sorrow than losing a family member or losing a human relationship. And another constant is the fact that actually society then and now wasn’t really as … maybe not as accepting, but not as empathetic to the loss of a human-animal relationship. So you could tell that people were struggling alone in the past, and they struggle alone today as well. Maybe feeling shame, for feeling all this grief, following the loss of a pet. The difference is that, of course, today, they are sort of support charities and organizations. In the UK, we have the Blue Cross that supports bereaved pet owners. Because it is the loss of a very significant relationship. And the act of burial – the act of erecting a gravestone – just like it is for humans, is about the grieving process is rooted in the grieving process. It’s for the survivors, it’s not for the deceased. And it’s the same for pets.
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What can be learned from archaeology
Leigh: Ryan and I have hosted several archaeologists on the show over the past three and a half years. And each time, we found it striking just how much we can glean about around science from how they do theirs. As Eric’s science, merges zoology with archaeology, Ryan and I asked him when he sees as being most generalizable from the intersection of these disciplines.
Tourigny: The unique thing about archaeology is that we’re doing science, but we’ve lost all the controls. You’re excavating, and you’re trying to be as systematic and careful as possible, so that you do things systematically across the site or across different sites, and that you are collecting things in the same way. You’re trying to be as systematic as possible. But in reality, there are so many complicating factors that determine whether or not the sites that you’re digging are going to even have materials that survive, right? If you if you think of bones, for example, well, you need the right soil conditions for the bones, the organic matter to preserve. And if the conditions are just right, you might have more than just bones that preserve. You might have, you know, textiles or clothing, or wood or other organics. And within the same site, the variation in sort of soil pH levels, or the drainage or anything else might significantly affect what preserves and what doesn’t. And then you complicate that by the fact that sites have been destroyed by later human occupation.
So archaeology is a destructive practice. There’s only one site and you know, once you’ve excavated it, if you didn’t do it, right, you can’t excavate it again. That’s it. You’ve lost that data if you didn’t record it the first time. And it’s easy not to get all the data because, well, for various reasons. I mean, you’re outside, you’re in the field, you’re under different weather conditions, different soil conditions. So you have those complicating factors. But then also you have the fact that you are an archaeologist at a specific moment in time, right? Currently in 2020. Where we know certain methods that work, we know certain methods that don’t. But definitely, just like every science, the methods keep on improving year after year. So a site excavated in the 1950s was not excavated to the same standards as a site might be excavated today. And then you wonder what information was lost then. And then you also wonder, “what information am I losing now that might be recoverable in 20 or 50 years from now?” So you see a lot of archaeologists approach this dilemma by only partially excavating sites. You know, focusing on a specific area to address their specific research questions, as opposed to excavating at all. Because we might have a technique in the future that will allow us to record even more information. So the best way to preserve archaeology is actually by keeping it in the ground instead of digging it up and recording it. But if it can be, the big question is whether or not what you’ve recovered is representative of the past. And then, if it is, are the individuals who created these material remains actually representative of all individuals in the past? And to what extent? And then try to identify the reasons why people did what they did. It’s just so … there’s so many complicating factors. And that’s what I love about archaeology is that, you know, not only do you find some cool stuff, but you, you get to be these forensic detectives of the far past and pursue endless numbers of different topics. You know, from one minute you might be studying human animal-relationships in cemeteries. Another one, you might be looking at what people were eating in a certain time period. Or you know, what people believed in how people interacted with one another, how people interacted with the environment, how people interacted with anything. You could ask any kind of question.
Links to manuscript, bonus audio and other materials
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Leigh: That was Eric Tourigny discussing his article, “Do all dogs go to heaven? Tracking human animal relationships through the archaeological survey of pet cemeteries,” which is published on October 27, 2020, in the journal Antiquity. You’ll find a link to its paper at parsingscience.org/e90, along with transcripts, bonus audio clips, and other materials that we discussed during the episode.
Watkins: If you’ve enjoyed the first 90 episodes of Parsing Science, consider a year end donation to help us continue to bring you the unpublished stories of researchers from around the world, while supporting what we hope is one of your favorite science shows. If you’re interested in learning more, head over to parsingscience.org/support for more information.
Preview of next episode
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Leigh: Next time in Episode 91 of Parsing Science, we’ll talk with Emilio Ferrara from the University of Southern California about his research into the prevalence of bots and the injection of conspiracy theories across more than 240 million tweets regarding the 2020 presidential election.
Emilio Ferrara: Of course, we can study the activity of these suspicious accounts, not only at the microscopic level – you know, looking at the volume of activity that they produce, when they’re active – but also what they talk about, what kind of users they interact with, what kind of users interact with them. But the most important thing, if you like, is understanding what kind of stories, what kind of narrative, what kind of maybe ideology, these users are pushing.
Leigh: We hope that you’ll join us again.
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