Story by Mary Sue Iarocc. Photographs courtesy of Hartsdale Pet Cemetery.
If you asked Edward C. Martin Jr. to describe his typical customer, he wouldn’t be able to tell you.
“There is no significant thing that you could pin your hat on to, so I think it’s hard to stereotype people who choose to bury their pets in a pet cemetery,” says Martin, who has been the director of Hartsdale Pet Cemetery for the last 40 years. “If you walked around the cemetery you would see different religions represented. You could look at the names and see the differences in names, differences in languages. There are people who are very wealthy and there are people who have modest means. They’re not stone broke, of course, but they choose to do this as opposed to spending their money on something else.”
Founded by a New York City veterinarian in 1896, Hartsdale Pet Cemetery is America’s oldest pet cemetery and the final resting place of almost 100,000 pets and more than 700 people on five acres of a former apple orchard overlooking Central Avenue.
Kathy Reilly Fallon, a foot-and-ankle surgeon from Armonk, has family buried at the cemetery — both animal and human.
Fallon was in the middle of taking her last midterm for medical school on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in February 1992 when Mickey, her cat and constant companion of 15 years, passed away at home in her mother’s arms.
Martha Murphy, a longtime family friend to whom Fallon was so close that she called her “Grandma,” owned a large plot at the cemetery and offered to have Mickey laid to rest there alongside her dogs as an early graduation present.
Murphy stood by Fallon’s side at the funeral as she placed a set of rosary beads and a letter thanking her pet for his unconditional love inside Mickey’s rosewood-colored casket, where he lay on white satin with a pillow and blanket.
It was comforting to Fallon to have her beloved pet memorialized in such a special and meaningful way. The next time she returned to the cemetery it was a few years later, for Murphy’s own funeral.
Fallon could think of no better final resting place for Murphy, who owned a beauty parlor across the street from her house in the Bronx and was “a true woman entrepreneur” back in the 1960s through the 1980s.
“Grandma Martha was an avid dog lover who would take in stray dogs that she would find abandoned in her neighborhood, and I was always greeted by two or three dogs when I went to her house,” Fallon says. “She was a kind, loving soul who never married and had no children. To this day, I am at peace knowing Mickey is surrounded by my Grandma Martha and all her dogs, which I consider family.”
Martin says that a pet cemetery operates very much like a human cemetery. Pets’ bodies are buried in caskets. Loved ones can hold a wake of sorts in the cemetery’s viewing room and spend time with their pet’s body just before burial or cremation, after which the cemetery provides a private family funeral and procession down to the burial plot. Human bodies must be cremated prior to the burial and funeral service.
Like Martha Murphy, Martin plans on spending eternity at the cemetery, where his cremated remains will be buried in his family’s plot alongside both his parents and several pets including his granddaughter’s goldfish.
Martin says the cemetery buries 425 pets a year while the Hartsdale Pet Crematory — which is on cemetery grounds but is a separate business — does 1,500 cremations annually for the cemetery’s customers.
As with human funerals, burial is significantly more expensive than cremation. If you wanted to bury a pet, going the least expensive way would cost about $1,800, while it would be $200 to have a pet cremated.
While at least 90 percent of the pets buried at the cemetery are dogs and cats, Martin says there are many other kinds of animals represented, including a lion cub, rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, birds and even a plot full of turtles.
“There was an elderly woman, long since gone, who was very sharp and when her landlord wouldn’t let her have a dog or a cat, she decided she’d get pet turtles and keep them in her bathtub,” Martin says. “She bought a plot, and now all of her turtles are buried together.”
Across the street from The Sacred Heart Church, the cemetery raises existential questions about the possibility of pets having souls and thus enjoying an afterlife. Pope Francis — who took his name from the patron saint of animals — recently raised the issue, as well as some controversy, when he was quoted as saying, “Paradise is open to all God’s creatures.” But apparently, he didn’t mean to suggest, as in the title of the 1989 film, that “All Dogs Go To Heaven.”
“I think what happens is that you get tremendously attached to your pets and many, many people, myself included, think of their pets as part of their family,” Martin says. “We don’t equate them with humans, but it doesn’t mean there’s any real difference in the love we have for them.”
For more, visit petcem.com.