The gravestones in Paris' legendary pet cemetery tell stories of eternal friendship, writes Pamela Wade.
The gravestones record the lives and deaths of cats, racehorses, ponies, birds, fish, hamsters, mice, tortoises, rabbits, a sheep, a couple of chickens and even a monkey and a lion.
They're just an ordinary, older couple, a bit plump, comfortably dressed, and intent. Their focus is a small square of bare earth, from which they're pulling some weeds before raking the soil neatly.
They replace the pots of pansies they've removed and rise creakily to their feet. After reviewing at their work for a minute, he turns and walks off along the path. She hesitates, then bends and strokes a flower gently before straightening and hurrying after her husband, a tissue held to her eyes.
When they've gone, I take a look. Compared with all the sites around it, there's nothing to see, no personal touches, no writing, no way of knowing what lies beneath the dirt. But, in its way, it's one of the most touching sights in this small cemetery in Paris, because it's clearly not just the recently disturbed earth that's fresh: so too is their grief.
The cemetery itself is far from ordinary.
Out beyond the Route Peripherique in a suburb called Asnieres-sur-Seine, set among trees beside the river, it's devoted entirely to animals. It was established in 1899 by a journalist, Marguerite Durand, and a lawyer, Georges Harmois, after the passing of a law controlling the disposal of dead pets.
Although its name, Cimetiere des Chiens, indicates that the original intention was to provide for the burial of dogs, it wasn't long before all pets were welcomed. Now the gravestones record the lives and deaths of cats, racehorses, ponies, birds, fish, hamsters, mice, tortoises, rabbits, a sheep, a couple of chickens and even a monkey and a lion.
More than just a record of the names and dates, the engraved slabs of granite and marble are a testament to love, both given and returned. Wandering along the narrow pathways between the rows of stones and statues, again and again I read heartfelt messages of gratitude for the unconditional love given by these animals. Faithful friend, So dear, Our great love, Forever missed, In my thoughts every day, Little darling - in shiny new gold, or traced out in moss, the messages unanimously describe a bond that death can't break.
The cemetery, the first of its kind and now a registered Historical Monument, is filled with a variety of memorials, the largest just inside the Art Nouveau archway entrance. Under a statue of a child clinging to the back of a St Bernard, the dramatic inscription reads: "He saved the lives of 40 people. He was killed by the 41st."
Barry was a mountain rescue dog who died of exhaustion in 1814 after his last mission.
Police dogs and army mascots are remembered here too, and there is even a film star: the original Rin Tin Tin, rescued by an American soldier from a French battlefield in 1918. He died 14 years later after starring in 27 Hollywood movies and being nominated for an Oscar, and was returned here for burial.
Most of the animals, though, are simply much-loved pets. Many are unidentifiable just from their names, but others are shown in photographs, occasionally with their proud owners: eager dogs, self-possessed cats, fluffy bunnies and Kiki, the frankly unnerving monkey.
There are statues, life-sized, of a greyhound, a wild-eyed terrier, small hairy dogs of
indeterminate breed, curled-up cats. The stone above Cocotte's grave - "faithful, inseparable companion" - is engraved with her image: a 16-year-old chicken. Some pets have large and expensive marble tombs, obelisks, carved stone kennels and baskets; others simple slabs decorated with ornaments, tinsel, shiny beads. Arry the dog's gravestone has a glass globe on top containing presumably his favourite toys: tennis balls.
At the far end of the cemetery is a hut maintained by a local cat protection organisation: many well-fed stray cats stroll the grounds, and sleep on the sun-warmed gravestones, in welcome contrast to their stone counterparts.
There are no longer any personal touches on the oldest graves, of animals that died more than a century ago. The stone is flaking, lichened and mossy, the slabs leaning crookedly.
But the inscriptions, some of them in English, are still as poignant as those on the newest graves: Always my only friend, Loyal companion during tragic times, You were the joy of my life, Thank you for all the love you gave us.
Zezette, Sultan, Darius, Poupoun, Katia, Sissi, Missette, Minouchet - all so loved, all so missed. Walking around these gravestones is heart-warming, but also inescapably sad.
Thank goodness, then, for the odd light relief. Though you died in 1922 at the age of 12, you're still giving delight, Wanky Reynolds.
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