Cimetière des Chiens: Visiting Rin Tin Tin at the World’s Oldest Pet Cemetery in Paris
Paris is famous for its cemeteries – Père Lachaise, Montparnasse, Passy – where many of France’s greatest artists, composers, writers and political figures are buried. Some famous foreigners, such as Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, died in Paris and today their admirers flock to their gravesites.
Lesser known, Paris has boasted a world-renowned pet cemetery for more than a century. The Cimetière des Chiens, which first opened in 1899, is located on the banks of the Seine just down river from the spot where Seurat painted his famous pointilliste tableau of corseted women, top-hatted men, dogs and monkeys relaxing on a Sunday afternoon at the edge of the Seine on the Grande Jatte island.
The cemetery was founded by French feminist Marguerite Durand, who got her start as an ingénue actress at the Comédie Française before shifting her ambitions towards politics and social causes. Her career transition was facilitated by a fortuitous marital union with an MP called Georges Laguerre, who also happened to be director of the newspaper, La Presse. Durand, a high-collared, full-figured and copiously bosomed woman, was a formidable force in her own right. Among her many eccentricities she kept a pet lioness, which for some reason she called “Tiger”. Durand was famous for taking Tiger on long walks in the Parc Monceau, which in the late 19th century was frequented by louche aristocrats and enchanting courtesans.
Following her short-lived marriage to Laguerre, Durand threw herself into the women’s rights movement and founded the feminist newspaper, La Fronde, whose entire staff, including reporters, were women. For a life rich in events and controversy, it’s ironic that Durand’s most enduring legacy is the Cimetière des Chiens. She was primarily driven by considerations of public health. For generations Parisians had been tossing dead pets into rubbish bins or, worse, throwing them into the Seine with little concern for the threat of disease. Durand’s pet cemetery was a forward-looking vision that advocated the proper burial of domestic animals. Her beloved lioness called Tiger became one of the cemetery’s first full-time residents.
I recently visited the Cimetière des Chiens with Oscar and Leo on a warm sunny afternoon. I took the precaution of calling beforehand to ask if I could come with two bichons – both of whom, I took care to make clear, were very much alive.
“Oh, by all means, sir,” replied a pleasant chap on the telephone. “We have only one rule, however. You must keep them on a lead at all times. There is a reason for this. There are dozens of cats that live in the cemetery. This is their home. You will see them when you come.”
More than a century after it was inaugurated, the area surrounding Durand’s pet cemetery had sadly degenerated into a grotty patch of suburban blight. But the cemetery itself was still a verdant enclave of rustic seclusion. The fellow on the phone was right about the cats. You can see them moving stealthily between the tombstones as soon as you pass under the enormous Art Nouveau portico to enter the lush and shaded cemetery grounds. At first there was nobody when I entered with Oscar and Leo. It took five minutes for the man in the ticket office to appear and take my €3.50 entry fee. The price of admission (there was no charge for Oscar and Leo) entitled me to a glossy foldout brochure featuring a map that marked the tombstones of the noteworthy animal residents.
Looking around, I quickly formed the impression that the Cimetière des Chiens was not among the city’s most tourist-trodden attractions. We seemed to be the only visitors. The fellow behind the ticket counter, a moustachioed little man with a slightly worried expression, seemed extremely pleased to receive me. So pleased that he escorted us into the cemetery and provided a helpful introductory narrative as we passed from hot shards of sunlight into the cool dappled shade of the burial ground.
I studied my map and read the brochure as Oscar and Leo gazed devilishly at the feline creatures lurking nervously in the shadows. I was surprised to learn that the cemetery counted some 40,000 pets – and they were not all dogs. Madame Durand designed the necropolis according to four categories: dogs, cats, birds, and other animals (rabbits, hamsters, mice, birds, fish, even a monkey and a racehorse – and of course a lion called Tiger).
The cemetery surface is a long stretch of moulded stones, sticking up like rows of uneven teeth amongst an overgrowth of grass and shrubs under a thick canopy of lush trees that created the impression of a hushed garden. Oscar and Leo fell into a strange silence, as if they intuitively understood that we were on sacred grounds. We immediately came upon the large monument commemorating the famous St Bernard rescue dog, Barry, who lived from 1800 to 1814 in Switzerland. Trained by the monks of the Saint Bernard Hospice, Barry saved forty lives in the Swiss mountains. The cemetery monument told us that Barry died while “rescuing the forty-first” person. The truth was more complicated – and tragic. Barry set out with other Saint Bernards in 1814 to find an escaped prisoner and found him unconscious in the snow. When the convict, saved by Barry’s body heat, awoke to discover himself under a large dog, he stabbed Barry and fled. Barry tragically died from his wound.
Nearby there was the burial plot of another heroic canine from the same epoch: Moustache, the mascot of Napoleon’s Grande Armée killed during the Spanish campaign of 1811. There were also plots of cherished dogs – Drac, Tony, Marquise – belonging to Russian and Romanian princesses exiled in Paris. Perhaps the most famous dog buried here was the original Rin Tin Tin, the canine screen star from the early days of silent motion pictures in the 1920s. The Alsatian, born on a battlefield in eastern France during the First World War, was only five days old when found by an American army cadet who brought him back to America where stardom and glory awaited in Hollywood.
Rin Tin Tin starred in some twenty Warner Bros films – including “Where the North Begins” and “A Dog of the Regiment” – both huge box office successes. Rin Tin Tin (who was called “Rinty”) died in 1932 at the grand age of 14. According to Hollywood legend, the famous dog died in the arms of bottle-blonde Hollywood starlet Jean Harlow. The movie star kept one of Rin Tin Tin’s offspring as a pet; so did screen legend Greta Garbo. The dog’s death was a major event in 1932. A flash bulletin interrupted radio programmes with the news. Rin Tin Tin’s body was returned to his native France for burial here in the Cimetière des Chiens. His gravestone today stands modestly amongst the others. You have to study the map carefully to find it.
Most moving are not the burial plots of the pets owned by exalted and famous figures, but the countless dogs, cats and cherished animal companions of ordinary people whose memory has vanished with the relentless passage of time. Their devotion to their cherished pets can still be poignantly felt when reading the faded inscriptions of long-neglected tombstones of beloved dogs – Minouche, Pompon, Belle, Arry, Rosy, Sully, Yodo, Daisy. My eyes fell upon the gravestones of a poodle called Toby who died in 1922 at age 17; a Westie called Rosa who died in 1993 at age 13; a Husky called Mr Floyd who died “avec tout notre amour” in 2002 at age 12; a Jack Russell called Nérone who died in 1996 at age 17; and a bichon called Dalton (“mon petit chien chéri”) who died in 1998 at age 14. Some inscriptions are in English, such as the gravestone for a rabbit called Bunga: “Missing you Bunga”.
I was especially moved by the gravestone of a dog called Dick who lived from 1915 to 1929. His master tells us on the tombstone how his life has been a dark depression without his beloved Dick. Another gravestone for a female dog called Emma (1889-1900) was inscribed by the lady who owned her: “My only friend in my wayward and sorry life.” Sweet little Emma had been buried here only a year after the cemetery opened in 1899. I tried to imagine who this lady was and what could have been the reason for her terrible sorrow.
At that instant I caught sight of three people not far off. When I looked more closely, I saw that they were equipped with news cameras and were filming in the cemetery. They looked to be from Japan, a foreign television crew preparing a news report on the famous Paris pet cemetery. I didn’t want to be in their way.
I discreetly lurched off in the other direction, holding Oscar and Leo one in each arm. We emerged from the cool shade of weeping willows to find ourselves at the edge of the Seine overlooking a small port named after Van Gogh.
I looked across the river towards Paris in the distance, seized by a troubling paradox. I was living in a country where every summer domestic animals are heartlessly tossed away like objects at the edge of motorways; and yet it’s this same country that gave the world its first pet cemetery, a sacred place where the memory of so many loved and cherished animals lives on in the heart-wrenching inscriptions etched onto those quiet gravestones on the shaded banks of the Seine.
Matthew Fraser’s Blog