Thursday, December 22, 2011

Day of the Dead, December Edition

For as long as I can remember, I've loved graveyards. Not in a creepy, let's-wear-black-lipstick-and-conjure-the-dead sort of way, but in a "Hey, it's verdant and peaceful here, and aren't these headstones interesting from a historical perspective?" sort of way. Over the years, I've picnicked in graveyards, French-kissed in graveyards, played impromptu games of hide-and-go-seek in graveyards, and shed tears over weather-worn words etched into the tombstones of strangers in graveyards. There's an odd sort of comfort and inspiration to be found in these places of final repose, and without fail, I find myself visiting them wherever I happen to be in the world.

Last weekend's bright, crisp, and not-too-cold conditions were ideal for a fresh-air outing, so we set off on a walk a couple of kilometers north, past the Parisian border and through the town of Clichy, then onward across the Seine as it twists through the suburbs to Asnieres-sur-Seine. Here, I was pretty sure, we'd find the pet cemetery I'd spotted on an Ile-de-France map months before. Sure enough, just across the Pont de Clichy, to the left, a grand, Art Nouveau entryway constructed of a luminescent blond stone led us to Le Cimitiere des Chiens.

Passing through the fanciful iron gates, we were greeted by a young man in a wooden kiosk whose crooked, graying teeth seemed perfectly suited to someone who works in a cemetery. The €3.50 entry fee took us by surprise, as did the fellow's generous gift of free entry when he learned we didn't have any cash. He welcomed us in, handed over a visitor's map, and issued a gentle warning to Fanny to be mindful of the cats who make the graveyard their home.

If I hadn't been so busy marveling at the hundreds of headstones decorated with loving, heartbreaking sentiments and sniffle-inducing portraits of pets passed, I'd have thoroughly examined the map and discovered that the famous French film star Rin Tin Tin is buried here, as is celebrated 19e century journalist/feminist Marguerite Durand's horse. Instead, I found myself caught up in the heart-melting stories rendered in cold stone. There's Sophie, the little ebony poodle, whose human mom refers to her as "the child I never had."

And then there's Bunga, the bunny you could just tell had the world's softest fur, and who clearly had a special bond with his (her?) human.

I liked Barry's headstone, too, because it made me consider the naming choices we make for our animals. Why do some get human(ish) names, and others get called Bunga?

These epitaphs and their accompanying photos reminded me of all the animals I have loved and lost in my life: Mitzi, the old cat with the shriveled ear and wire in her leg, adopted when we first moved to San Francisco, now buried in the backyard of our old apartment on Golden Gate Avenue; Josephina, the ultra-sensitive 8-year-old Chinese Crested I brought home out of pity, knowing most people weren't going to gravitate toward the middle-aged dog with the hairless body covered in pimples; Ratty, the neglected rodent my friend Anthony rescued from a rotten roommate, so anti-social that he literally bit every hand that fed him; and Fidget, another SF/SPCA adoptee, whose hackles sprang to life, porcupine style, at the sight of most other dogs, but who loved her humans unconditionally. I miss them all so much, and cherish those memories. Always will.

That, I think, is what makes a graveyard not a lonely, dark, and cold place, but a place that radiates comfort and warmth; it's the memories they harbor, and the feelings that are resurrected when we loved ones come to visit. Sometimes those feelings are sad ones, but just as often they are happy, funny, uplifting ones.

In the springtime, I'll make a trip back here. I'll pack a picnic lunch, and maybe even some cat treats for the resident felines. Then I'll unhinge the floodgates of memory, and let my thoughts linger on the fun times, and especially on all that love I've been lucky enough to share with so many furry and not-so-furry critters over the years. And, if Fanny's game, we'll even play hide-and-go-seek among the headstones.