Richard and Debra Harris selected a lovely spot for their final resting place in a picturesque, historic, five-acre cemetery just north of Manhattan. The trees and rolling hills make it easy to remember that the area was once an apple orchard, and on sunny days, the sprawling location is often bustling with family members visiting the deceased.
The Harrises, ages 68 and 55, had a beautiful marble bench custom made to fit around a tree on the plot, and many of their loved ones are already buried in adjoining plots.
So what makes their situation worthy of a mention? The cemetery they selected was a pet cemetery — and the loved ones they want to be buried near are their dogs. And last year, the state of New York banned the burial of human remains in pet cemeteries, leaving the Harrises — along with several other pet lovers with similar plans — in a lurch.
The burial of human remains in pet cemeteries isn’t exactly commonplace, but it’s a practice that’s been happening across the nation quietly for years. But last year, Hartsdale Pet Cemetery and Crematory, the oldest operating pet cemetery in the world and where the Harrises had purchased plots for themselves, was thrust into the news when the state required them to stop.
A number of people had already purchased plots at Hartsdale, located just outside New York City in Westchester County, with plans to be buried there — in some cases, such as with the Harrises, thousands of dollars had even been spent on a custom marker for the spot. In others, the plot holder had already passed away, and their loved ones were simply trying to carry out the deceased’s last wishes.
Taylor York, a New York attorney and professor of constitutional law, was at a standstill: Her aunt had been laid to rest alongside her dogs in Hartsdale in 2008, but her uncle passed away last year after the Board instituted the ban, and York was unable to bury him with his wife and their beloved dogs.
Reversal of fortune
Much to the relief of those involved, the decision was reversed late last year (after York filed several administrative appeals and was about to file a lawsuit with other concerned plot holders), with a few provisions — New York pet cemeteries may not advertise or charge for the burial of cremated human remains, and humans wishing to be interred in a pet cemetery must receive written notice that their remains will not be covered by the protections and legal rights granted to human cemeteries.
But, it got us thinking. Even among true animal lovers, who often leave direction to have their pets ashes buried with them in a regular cemetery, the choice to be buried next to one’s cats and dogs in a pet cemetery is unusual. In fact, since opening its gates in 1896, New York’s Hartsdale’s director Ed Martin, Jr., estimates that only 500 to 700 humans have been buried there — those records were not accurately kept until Martin arrived in 1974.
In contrast, there are some 70,000 animals buried at the location. Although Hartsdale is one of the best-known pet cemeteries allowing this practice, it is not the only one. Human owners are buried at Pet Heaven Memorial Park in Miami, Fla., where general manager Sergio Santos says there has been an increase in requests for the service. Keith Shugart, vice president of Oak Rest Pet Gardens in Bethlehem, Ga., has seen the same trend.
The International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories estimates that there are around 400 pet cemeteries in the nation; some allow the burial of cremated human remains, and some do not.
Whether or not humans can be buried in a pet cemetery, and under what circumstances, isn’t tracked on a national level — it’s up to each county, city, and, ultimately, the pet cemetery itself, although regardless of where one chooses to be buried, it’s always a good idea to specify that choice in a will.
'I can't imagine a better place'
A common theme among people who’ve made plans to be buried at Hartsdale, aside from an obvious love of animals, is the sense of peace the location brings. The Harrises, who split their time between Wells, Maine, and Port St. Lucie, Fla., have four dogs buried there, one waiting to be interred, and three more living with them who will eventually be laid to rest in the cemetery.
When they made the decision a year and a half ago to purchase a plot for themselves (and spent more than $3,000 on the custom bench), they had no qualms.
“You could spend days there reading the headstones. I can’t imagine a better place,” said Richard.
Others were more surprised, both by the location and their own decision. Jessie Adair, 64, first visited the location when an elderly friend showed her the three plots she’d purchased for her own pets.
“At first I was taken aback by the idea of a pet cemetery,” said the customer service representative. “But with that very first visit, I was stunned by the physical beauty of the place and completely won over by the idea that pet owners, if cremated, could also be buried with their pets.”
She later buried Beamer, an Italian Greyhound that she credits with helping her through a deep depression and saving her life, and a rescued cat named Binky, there.
“It was after paying several visits to Hartsdale and each time spending hours walking the grounds and reading all the loving inscriptions on the monuments that I realized how at peace I felt whenever I visited Binky and Beamer. I knew then that this was where I wanted to be buried,” said Adair, who lives in nearby Riverdale, NY.
Ellen Kole, Ph.D., a teacher of French, Spanish and English language and literature, shared a similar sentiment.
“After learning about and visiting Hartsdale, seeing its beauty and peacefulness, I could imagine no other place and with no one else I would rather be buried. I selected a spot under a flowering Japanese maple tree and the thought that our ashes will be together gives me peace of mind.”
As one might imagine, the news of a loved one choosing to be buried among pets, no matter how much those pets are loved, can ruffle some familial feathers.
“I was careful about whom I told of my plans, knowing that many would feel them strange at the very least,” Kole said, who lives in Manhattan. “The good friends I did tell thought it was a wonderful idea. I did not tell my brother, whom I love very much, until later on, as we are quite different. He is proud of my accomplishments, but he already thinks I'm somewhat eccentric and I think this ties the bow on the package. Nonetheless, he has taken it gracefully and accepts and will fulfill my plans.”
Adair had a similar experience with sharing the news of her decision.
“I come from a very traditional family in terms of being buried with a church service in a family plot with other family members, etc. But when they realized I was serious, I think they came to understand that for me, it was a perfect fit.”
For York's aunt and uncle, who never had children and considered their dogs their family, there was a happy ending, she reported on her web site.
Retired New York City police office Tom Ryan was laid to rest at Hartsdale Dec. 23rd, alongside his wife Bunny, and their "two Maltese babies, BJ the First and BJ the Second."
If you’re interested in finding a pet cemetery where you can be buried with your furry family members, the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories can help you find a pet cemetery in your area to accommodate that request.