Did you know the world’s oldest pet cemetery is in Westchester, New York?
Did you know the country’s first pet cemetery opened right here in New York, and still to this day is the world’s largest such burial ground? Hartsdale Pet Cemetery was established in 1896 by NYC veterinarian Samuel Johnson (an early promoter of the ASPCA), who provided part of the apple orchard at his Westchester retreat to serve as a burial spot for a client’s dog. Nearly 125 years later, this area is the resting place for more than 80,000 pets, from dogs and cats to reptiles to a lion cub who called the Plaza Hotel home. Known as “The Peaceable Kingdom,” the grounds are also home to a 50-ton above-ground mausoleum for a pair of spaniels and the War Dog Memorial, a post-WWI tribute to military canines that was the first of its kind. Even Diana Ross, George Raft, and Mariah Carey have buried their four-legged friends here.
After offering a piece of his property for his client’s dog’s burial, Dr. Johnson appeared in a newspaper article about the event. His office was flooded with requests from other pet owners, and before long he had taken a three-acre portion of his orchard to officially serve as a pet burial ground. According to the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, “Soon little headstones, wire fences, and elaborate floral arrangements were peppering the grounds. It all came to a climax in 1899 when a spaniel named Major was put to rest in a glass-topped satin-lined casket while mourners sang an expressive doxology.” By 1913, news of the cemetery was so widespread that a deceased hound dog was brought to Hartsdale from Kalamazoo. It was originally known as Hartsdale Canine Cemetery, but the name was changed since animals of all kinds came here to rest.
The aforementioned dog mausoleum was erected in 1917, after Mrs. M. F. Walsh, the wife of a wealthy New Yorker, purchased the plot for $23,000 (over $400,000 today). The granite structure reads, “My Little TrueLove Hearts, Who Would Lick the Hand That Had No Food to Offer.”
The 1923 War Dog Memorial is considered the most historically significant piece of Hartsdale. In 1921, plot owners at the cemetery launched a campaign to raise $2,500 for a final resting spot for the thousands of canines killed during the war. Walter A. Buttendorf won the memorial’s design competition for his depiction of a bronze German Shepherd atop a granite boulder with a helmet and canteen at his feet. Sculptor Robert Caterson, whose work can be seen at Grand Central, carved the memorial from a granite boulder found at his Vermont quarry. When the War Dog Memorial was unveiled, representatives from every country that fought in the war attended. Other memorial plaques have been added over the years, including ones for the dogs lost in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the only dog who lost his life during 9/11.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Just last year, another notable animal came to rest at Hartsdale. “Ming of Harlem” was a 425-pound Bengal Tiger who shockingly lived in a Harlem apartment. Cabdriver Antoine Yates brought the tiger cub to his apartment at the Drew Hamilton Houses in the late 1990s, where he lived until being discovered by the police three years later. Ming was then moved to a sanctuary in Ohio, where he lived until his death in early 2019. His cremated remains were sent to Hartsdale.
Ming’s memorial is located right near that of another NYC big cat. Goldfleck was a lion cub who belonged to Princess Elisabeth Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy of Hungary, a portrait painter who loved animals and moved into the Plaza Hotel in 1909. As 6sqft previously explained, “She had seen a cute lion cub at the Ringling Brothers circus, but when she asked to buy him, the circus owners refused. They did, however, agree to sell him to Daniel E. Sickles, a Civil War hero whose portrait the Princess had just painted. He immediately turned the cub over to Princess Elisabeth.” After Goldfeck died in 1912, the Princess held a ceremony for him at the Plaza and then buried him at Hartsdale.
In 2012, the cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the first site of its kind to receive the designation. And in 2014, New York State ruled that cremated humans could be buried with their furry friends at pet cemeteries. The decision came after a deceased NYPD officer was refused his wish to have his ashes buried alongside his dog in Hartsdale. Before this, the cemetery had already allowed 700 owners to be buried with their pets, but it had never been formally legalized.
Today, the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery occupies five acres and is the final resting place for more than 80,000 pets. According to a 2016 Lohud article, about 425 pets are buried at Hartsdale each year. In an interview with the cemetery owner, Lohud learned that the reason there’s space for new animals is that “if annual fees are not kept up, the pets are dug up and cremated, and their ashes are scattered around the cemetery.”
In addition, the Hartsdale Pet Crematory, which was established in 1984, now accounts for one-third of Hartsdale’s business, as Lohud reported. Close to 15,000 animals are cremated here every year, some brought in by their owners and some picked up from shelters and vet offices.
Ed Martin Jr., who’s been the cemetery’s director since 1974, told Huff Post last year, “You may think that your job is selling a plot, opening a grave, and burying a pet and putting dirt back on the ground. But the business goal is that you want people who leave here after they have buried their pet to feel a little bit better than when they first came.”
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Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on June 26, 2015, and has been updated.