What's So Kitsch About Dead Pets?
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
When you think of “kitsch” what comes to mind? I picture a room filled to the brim with brightly-colored plastic tchotchkes from the 1950s -1980s. Some of the painfully cute with their oversized eyes, and maybe they’re holding a little plastic heart that says “I love you” or “Happy Valentine’s Day 1975” or “Virginia is for Lovers,” and there might be a Troll doll or two and a plastic pink flamingo thrown in for good measure.
At its most basic definition, this is kitsch. It is generally defined as “something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality.” The connotation here is negative. Kitsch is a tacky, cheap imitation of original, high quality art or pieces of culture. You can think of mass-produced paintings of brightly colored landscapes, or scenes of animals acting as humans.
This degradation of kitsch also implies a lack in the person who buys it and fills their home with kitsch objects. They don’t have good taste. Whether we know it or not, most of us have been taught through the work of philosophers like Immanuel Kant who argues that beauty is universal. If beauty is universal, then everyone should be able to recognize that standard, thereby having good taste. Therefore, those with “bad” taste, or those who prefer aesthetics at odds with the culturally determined standards of beauty, are lacking some essential element of character, and therefore morally deficient.
If it seems excessive to deem “bad” visual taste a moral issue, consider the following: how we are conditioned to view women who don’t wear makeup, or conventionally attractive styles, how we view people outside the gender binary, the language around visible plastic surgery, or even just the way we say “tacky.” Whenever I hear something referred to as “tacky” it is said with an almost vitriolic tone. This person who is tacky or whose home is tacky doesn’t just have unique taste, rather they are unable to operate within the confines of what is appropriate. There is something wrong about it.
Treating pets as humans is at odds with good taste. It’s accepted as an oddity or eccentricity during life, of someone acting like their dog is their baby, dressing it up, letting it kiss them on their lips. A cheap imitation of love between a human parent and child. And with the pet’s death, the supposed charade is expected to end. When a pet dies, we are given no time off work, and if you grieve too publicly it’s often seen as cringeworthy or misplaced. You take it back to the vet, or if you live in the country, maybe you bury it in your yard. No pomp, no frills, it’s just an animal, maybe you get it cremated and surreptitiously place it on a shelf or in a closet in your home.
But for many pet owners this feels inadequate. Since the turn of the last century, there has been a steady increase in the development of pet cemeteries and pet memorials globally. People want to memorialize their pets, who in many cases have been one of their closest companions for decades.
Many pet graveyards are what you would likely imagine: small headstones, sometimes an engraved rock is used for the purpose, placed respectfully on a rolling hill or secluded corner. Some could rival human cemeteries with their stately headstones, often etched with the animal’s likeness and an epitaph extolling their greatest virtues.
Others are something else entirely.
Take, for example, the Los Angeles pet cemetery that is the eternal resting place of Liza Minnelli’s dogs, among countless others. Here you will find all the visual markings of kitsch: vibrant colors and patterns, very sentimental, aggressively cute likenesses of pets, unnaturally colored fake flowers and so on. This is very clearly not a cemetery for humans, nor is it trying to be. It wholeheartedly embraces the excess of feeling and sentiment that a pet graveyard suggests to many.
Regardless of aesthetic, there is something inherently kitsch about memorializing a dead pet, since we see our attachment to pets as derivative of the intimacy between humans. Not only is a pet an imitation of human connection, but pet graveyards and pet memorials- to those who would criticize- are imitations of the much sadder, much more acceptable methods of remembering human beings.
Taste is not universal, and there is nothing immoral or untoward about creating a permanent display of love for one’s pet.
 Merriam Webster Dictionary