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ryan snook

It is located a few miles south of Dallas, just beyond a quiet neighborhood and a new church, near a highway where auto-repair shops and commercial storage units have multiplied in recent years. Generally overlooked by those hurrying along U.S. Highway 67, it has been there, I’m told, since the 1940s, and like many cemeteries of its age, it has become a bit worn at the heels. I had passed it with little notice more times than I can recall.

Finally, though, curiosity called out and, on a brightly lit afternoon, with a gentle breeze whispering through the elms and the pecan trees that shade many of the gravesites, I made my way past the entrance to Pet Memorial Park in Cedar Hill, Texas, to wander among the moving farewell messages of fellow pet lovers: “May the kitty cat angels watch over you” … “The best friend I ever had” … “If tears could bring a stairway and memories a lane, I’d walk right up to Heaven and bring you home again.”

Trust me when I say this is no spooky, haunted place like that described by author Stephen King in his classic horror novel Pet Sematary. I sensed nothing morbid or unsettling. If I had thought the place a bit strange before I entered, my mind had changed quickly. It was, like any cemetery, simply a memorial ground to lost loved ones, a place where bygone companionships could be peacefully celebrated.

One, I suppose, has to be an animal lover to fully understand how some feel about their dogs and cats. You saw that Associated Press story, didn’t you, that reported that 51 percent of America’s pets received Christmas gifts from their owners? And how about those plush pet hotels that are sprouting up nationwide?

Still, it is fair to wonder who takes a Sunday drive out to place flowers on the gravesite of an eternally resting pet. Who invests in plot fees, caskets and elaborate headstones to honor the memory of Chipper or Skippy, Lucky or Frisky? Who grieves so mightily at the loss of a nonhuman family member that he or she has the pet interred in such a place?

A lot of people, apparently. And such has been the case in the United States since 1896, when veterinarian Samuel Johnson had the idea of transforming his 5-acre apple orchard in Hartsdale, N.Y., into the nation’s first burial ground for pets. Today, the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, just a 30-minute drive north of Midtown Manhattan, is the final resting place for more than 75,000 pets.

Then there’s the Sea Breeze Pet Cemetery in Huntington Beach, Calif.; the Abbey Glen Pet Memorial Park in Lafayette, N.J.; and the Whispering Pines Pet Cemetery in Michigan’s Ypsilanti Township, to name a few.

According to Donna Shugart-Bethune, the ?executive administrator of the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories, there are 250 such resting places registered with her organization. Add nonmembers and she estimates that there are as many as 700 worldwide.

“There is a special bond between many people and their pets,” Shugart-Bethune says. “And there are a number of factors involved in a decision to have a pet buried in a cemetery — religious beliefs, availability of a burial site, etc. But generally it has to do with a lasting appreciation for the unconditional love and comfort the pet has given. People want a place to go and remember that.”

This is nothing new, you understand. As far back as 330 B.C., when Alexander the Great’s dog, Peritas, died, he led a funeral procession to the gravesite and had a stone monument erected in honor of his beloved pet.

It isn’t even unusual, Shugart-Bethune says, when inquiries come from pet owners wishing to be buried alongside their pets. “By law,” she explains, “a pet can’t be buried in a traditional cemetery. But, since pet cemeteries don’t fall under the same regulations, it is allowed.” She says her family’s Oak Rest Pet Gardens near Atlanta regularly gets calls with such requests.

Clearly, the relationship between humans and their animals is a powerful thing.

As I look across the room at my old pals Lucy and Bud, who now spend more and more time sleeping as they get on in years, the better I understand.