- Cat Dorman
A Trip to Aspin Hill Memorial Park
This past weekend, accompanied by a good friend who “likes when I take her to cemeteries,” I drove 20 minutes northwest of Washington, DC to the area’s oldest pet cemetery, Aspin Hill Memorial Park.
Located in Aspen Hill, Maryland (yes the spellings are different) the Memorial Park is the second oldest known pet cemetery in the US, following Hartsdale Cemetery in New York. It’s located just off a main road close to the highway and next to a church, but is so secluded that at first glance you hardly understand the scale. When we arrived, only the most recent graves were visible through the misty morning sky. But behind groves of trees and blooming cherry blossoms sit eight acres of pet graves.
The park opened in 1920, by kennel owners Richard and Bertha Birney, and over the last century the park has accrued over 50,000 permanent residents, including some humans who elected to be buried alongside their furry companions. Besides cats and dogs, there are horses, turtles, hamsters and birds buried in the park.
One of the most striking monuments is the 6 foot tall Timmons Monument, flanked by life-sized cats, and the story behind it makes it even more beautiful. It stands as one of the tallest headstones, and Bascom N. Timmons was a big newspaper man in the 1930’s; he advised Calvin Coolidge and served as president of National Press Club (NPC). Timmons was a great animal lover, and erected this monument at Aspin Park where he buried not only his own pets, but over 100 stray animals as well. (I'm not crying, you are!)
As Aspin Hill has been open to the public for over 100 years, the styles of headstones and the memorial items left behind vary greatly depending on personal taste and era, unlike in a smaller, private cemetery that would usually have a much more uniform aesthetic.
Some areas could easily be mistaken for a human burial ground, with uniform rows of solemn grey headstones. Others have been reshaped by the serpentine roots of trees that expand in the intervening decades since the owners last goodbye, breaking up the once-tidy lines. And some areas, seem to have little organizational structure at all, with the distances between markers and their directions varying greatly.
The most recent graves are often complemented by cutesy sculptures, Christmas decorations, and fake flowers left beside the headstones, which make it clear that many owners regularly visit their dead pets. The graves from the 60's and 70's have some classic kitsch features, usually in the form of stylized sculptures like Tessie June’s.
This poodle and his/her mausoleum and bench have not survived the elements as nicely as Tessie June, but must have stood as a beautiful monument to a beloved pet during their prime.
In the first half of the century, a headstone that includes a photographic portrait of the pet was a popular design and led to some amazing finds in the cemetery - two of my favorites were Frosty the cat and General Grant.
I was surprised by the amount of religious volume of St. Francis of Assisi statues spread throughout the park. He may be the patron saint of animals, but the church has a not-always-favorable history with pet burials and accepting that they have souls. However, as public opinion shifted and owners struggled to believe that their beloved house pets had no souls when they were so pure and good, the church, miraculously, softened its viewpoint.
In addition to over a dozen St. Francises and a few Virgin Marys, there are many incense burners, a memorial candle and many headstones marked with the Star of David for the Jewish pets.
Most surprisingly of all, Aspin Hill has a number of humans who elected to be buried alongside their pets. It is not particularly common to have humans and pets buried together in cemeteries. Generally, there are zoning rules and regulations that keep humans from being buried in dedicated pet spaces, and vice versa. Yet, at Aspin Hill as many as 70 people are buried beside their pets.
A. Wilson Mattox chose to be buried beside his beloved greyhound Robin Goodfellow, and their eternal resting places are marked by a sculpture of Robin.
Helena M. Kedda and her dog Dark Moon died nearly 30 apart, but now in death they are forever reunited, and they even share the same headstone. A beautiful symbol of Kedda's lifelong dedication to her sweet companion.
As of 2007, the park is run by the Montgomery County Humane Society, as part of a forthcoming animal welfare and care complex. no new plots are available, as with over 50,000 animals and 30 human companions, the cemetery is at full capacity but the Humane Society has made their mark on the cemetery with a few headstones that highlight the Society’s work.
Of particular note are two neighboring headstones; one is dedicated to the memory of animals made into furs, and the second is dedicated to Mickey, a dog who arrived at the Humane Society in a state beyond help. These headstones remind us that while many animals are loved and cherished and have happy lives, just as many are victimized by human cruelty.
They serve as a reminder that death comes in many forms. Sometimes, a life has been long and all parties feel, at least somewhat, prepared to say goodbye. These animals, represented by the Humane Society headstones, were unloved in life, yet here they sit, alongside animals so beloved that their humans built mausoleums and decorate their graves each season. These headstones build on the legacy of people like Bascom Timmons who laid to rest the forgotten and lost animals of Maryland alongside his own beloved pets.
Aspin Hill Memorial Park stands as a beautiful reminder of the place animals hold in our lives.
For more information, you can visit PetCemeteries.net, which has done a more comprehensive dig into the cemetery’s residents and history over many years.