When Chris Nichols was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer, he knew exactly where he wanted to be buried: Ramsey Creek, a 33-acre nature preserve just outside Westminster, South Carolina, minutes from his home. One attendee at the funeral was his dog, Briar. The pet watched as Nichols was bundled in quilts sewn by his great-grandmothers and lowered into the ground inside a coffin his father had made.
“He was very close to his dog,” recalls Kimberley Campbell, who runs Ramsey Creek with her husband. Eventually, Briar joined Nichols; the two now rest together, in side-by-side graves.
The desire to be buried with a pet is nothing new. Eric Greene, a cultural anthropologist and the founder of the Green Pet-Burial Society, first realized that humans could be buried alongside their animal companions when he learned about a Natufian burial site from 10,000 BCE in what is now northern Israel. “In it lay the skeleton of a woman on her side and with a puppy’s skeleton by her head, her hand gracefully resting atop his head,” Greene remembers.
Greene, an animal lover who’d wanted his dog present at his bar mitzvah, quickly became an advocate for what he calls “whole-family cemeteries”: places where the whole family, pets included, may be buried together.
The burial of pet remains in cemeteries designated for humans is illegal in many U.S. states. Like other laws surrounding funerals, these are often based on a cultural sense of what is appropriate. The anthropologist Mary Thurston traces them back to the institutionalization of Christianity. With time, “animal practices were discouraged as it was accepted that humans were the only beings with souls,” she told CNN in 2010.
A debate over who is worthy of death rituals makes the concept of whole-family cemeteries controversial. In 2009, Washington state tried to pass legislation allowing for the burial of pets in human cemeteries, and an employee of the Washington Cemetery and Funeral Association laid out her argument against the bill:
Cemeteries in this state are formed for the purpose of the burial “of the human dead.” Try going back to the families who in good faith bought their graves in the knowledge that it was people-only. Try telling people of various religious faiths who believe various animals are anathema. Try telling your family member who is deathly afraid of dogs that, sorry, there's a good chance you're going to be buried next to a dog.
For others, being buried next to their dog is their final wish. When Greene first started the Green Pet-Burial Society, a surge of people found the group’s website through Google searches. “They would put in ‘human cemetery’ or ‘can I be buried with my dog,’” he explains. As they began writing to him, asking if there were such cemeteries near where they lived, Greene decided to set up a directory. It’s now by far the most visited page on the site.
Despite laws and policies, some pet lovers apparently are finding ways to make these burials happen. “There are just numerous stories of people sneaking the cremains of a beloved pet into the casket of somebody who has passed,” Greene says. “And the question is, why should people have to sneak around at a period of grief and bereavement?”
Greene wants laws that allow individual cemeteries to decide for themselves whether they want to offer the option of burying animals alongside their owners. But states have been taking a largely piecemeal approach to legalization. Last year, New York allowed the burial of animal remains in human cemeteries—with the caveat that both humans and pets must be interred at the same time. Other states are interested in whole-family cemeteries, but only to a point.
Greene has contacted more than 20 different legislators in his home state of California, and says many told him they would be willing to support legislation but wouldn’t introduce it. “This just wasn’t a priority,” he explains.
Whether or not it should be depends, in part, on what people consider to be the role of pets in their lives. “It was clear to me from the beginning that people consider their pets part of their family,” says Ellen Macdonald, the owner of Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park in Cedar Creek, Texas. “For some people, pets are their only family.”
Eloise Woods has a section of the park exclusively for animals, which is currently home to 103 creatures, including rats, hamsters, guinea pigs, hedgehogs, cockatiels, rabbits, and “scores of cats and dogs.” Elsewhere in the park, 76 animals are buried in family plots, waiting for their people, and three animals are already buried with their owners. Ramsey Creek also both has a designated pet section and allows pet burial throughout the entire park. The animals-only section can be an option for people that want to bury a pet but haven’t yet decided if they want to come to rest in the same cemetery.
The debate over whole-family cemeteries also gets at the different ways people define the sacred. Greene believes his work goes “beyond just the simple practice of trying to get the remains of pets to be buried with human family members.” In the early 1980s, Greene developed—and graduated with—the very first bachelor’s and master’s in animals and culture studies, and he has always had questions about humans’ relationships to animals, and what these relationships say about us and our societies.
These questions’ entwinement with the legal system only makes answering them more complicated. Requirements that pets and humans be buried simultaneously, like in New York, can lead to the euthanasia of healthy animals so that they can be interred in time with their owners. And state bans on pet remains in human cemeteries often mean that people choose to be buried in less-regulated pet cemeteries, whose land might someday be sold or developed for other purposes.
In the last several years, Greene says he has seen a growing acceptance of the idea of humans and pets being buried together. “They’re saying, ‘What? It’s prohibited? I would have thought that any cemetery would do that.’”
As Macdonald puts it, “We share our lives together, why not our deaths?”