Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Pet Cemetery

The grave markers all had engraved names like, Twinkie, Muffie, and Simba. A few people were milling about, not sure if they were mourners or just tourists like me. The cemetery is not off the beaten path, but rather right on a main thoroughfare, at a traffic light, so it's relatively easy for curious motorists to wheel in. It's gigantic billboard-sized sign is not easy to miss, either. Sea Breeze Pet Cemetery is at the intersection of Beach Boulevard and Yorktown Avenue, merely a mile from the sea, and the Pacific Coast Highway.

Office entrance, Sea Breeze Pet Cemetery, Huntington Beach, California

The vicinity is about an hour south of Los Angeles. It is beautiful – Southern California at its finest. To say that Newport Beach, where I was actually staying, is an affluent area is like saying the Pope is an okay guy. In Newport Beach, even the pizza delivery guy drives a Porsche! (I swear I saw this during my visit.) Wealth, it seems, allows you to grieve any way you like. As I walked through the front half of this several-acre cemetery past the life-sized statue of “Old Sarge,” the U.S. Marine dog, I got a better idea of just how large the place is. The office entrance, shown above, is about a third of the way into the cemetery, which comprises several acres in total. 

There was an article published by the University of Pittsburgh in May, 2015, called, “Deathscapes in Metropolitan Colombia,” (written by Christien Klaufus) which was basically about how the affluent dead are memorialized (because they can afford it) and the non-affluent are forgotten (and sometimes obliterated). I thought about this as I visited the Sea Breeze Pet Cemetery in the next town over, Huntington Beach.

Animals, it seems, can enjoy a “defined social order of society” by virtue of their wealthy keepers. The Sea Breeze Pet Cemetery and Crematorium is the final resting place of thousands of animals which their owners have laid to rest. Each grave has its own regulation-sized bronze or marble engraved memorial plaque (same kind as are found in human cemeteries) to mark the burial spot. Statues of Saint Francis of Assisi abound (patron saint, and protector of, animals).

“Pet” is a rather outdated name for the animal companions that people choose to surround themselves with. And certainly, “pet” is not an accurate or fair moniker for “Old Sarge,” whose statue commands the central place in the cemetery, near the office entrance. From the “Roadside America” website:

"Old Sarge"
“Old Sarge, fighting Marine Corps "Devil Dog" of World War II, was a brave German shepherd who saved 9 marines and was awarded a purple heart. When he died at age 20, Old Sarge was seen off with a full military funeral and 15 gun salute." - Roadside America

Other star-quality animals buried here, according to Roadside America:  "Rumored to be the last resting place of John Wayne's German Shepherd and a few pets belonging to Karen Carpenter." John Wayne apparently lived in the area - the local Orange County airport into which I flew is called the John Wayne Airport. A statue of him sculpted in his famous cowboy swagger pose holds a prominent place in the lobby.

For the most part, the animals buried here are day-to-day common companions which residents felt very strongly about, and therefore went to the expense of cremating, burying, and memorializing here at Sea Breeze. And they have been doing this since 1961, according to The Sea Breeze Pet Cemetery website. 

"He knew he was human?" - Cat grave, Sea Breeze Cemetery

Hearkening oddly to the segregation burial practices in Columbia described in the University of Pittsburgh article, dogs are buried away from cats, cats away from birds, and so on. There is even a separate Jewish section, as we commonly find in human cemeteries! Though the South American practices of burying the rich away from the poor is not quite the same thing, these separate sections do make one wonder.

Like many human cemeteries, there is a defined section in which the graves are decorated with spinning things, photos of the deceased, plastic flowers, and other adornments. I wondered if the prior owners/human companions of these animals actually visited the graves. 

The crematory, with its requisite chimney, sits behind the office building. As it was late in the day, the place was closed. There were no employees about. This was unfortunate for me, as I had many questions. The fast food joint next door was open for business, however. Mercifully, there was a high brick wall separating it from the cemetery. One may not want to idly survey such a deathscape while munching on one’s tacos.

I didn’t have a lot of time to examine many gravestone inscriptions, but I was taken with a few. I was rather puzzled by the memorial to Corky the cat who "Knew he was human." Also interesting is the "Boo Boo" stone directly above on which they left a space for the next pet - just like in people cemeteries. Not sure if the iron pig with wings below was supposed to signify an angelic messenger, a celestial guide to heaven -  or just a deceased pig.

St. Francis of Assisi, between dog and cat sections
"Hear our humble prayer, O God,
for our friends the animals,
especially for animals who are suffering;
for animals that are overworked,
underfed and cruelly treated;
for all wistful creatures in captivity
that beat their wings against bars;
for any that are hunted or lost or deserted
or frightened or hungry;
for all that must be put death.
We entreat for them all Thy mercy and pity,
and for those who deal with them
we ask a heart of compassion
and gentle hands and kindly words.
Make us, ourselves, to be true friends to animals,
and so to share the blessings of the merciful."