Cat Funerals in the Victorian Era

Inconsolable Grief by Ivan Kramskoi, 1884.

During the early 19th century, it was not uncommon for the mortal remains of a beloved pet cat to be buried in the family garden.  By the Victorian era, however, the formality of cat funerals had increased substantially.  Bereaved pet owners commissioned undertakers to build elaborate cat caskets.  Clergymen performed cat burial services.  And stone masons chiseled cat names on cat headstones.  Many in society viewed these types of ceremonies as no more than an amusing eccentricity of the wealthy or as yet another odd quirk of the elderly spinster.  Others were deeply offended that an animal of any kind should receive a Christian burial. 

In March of 1894, several British newspapers reported the story of a Kensington lady “of distinction” who held a funeral for her cat, Paul.  An article on the subject in the Cheltenham Chronicle states:

“Except that the Church did not lend its sanction, the function was conducted quite as if it had been the interment of a human person of some importance.  A respectable undertaker was called in, and instructed to conduct the funeral in the ordinary way; the body was to be enclosed in a shell which would go inside a fine oak coffin.  There were the usual trappings, including a plate on which was inscribed the statement that ‘Paul’ had for seventeen years been the beloved and faithful cat of Miss —, who now mourned his loss in suitable terms.  The coffin, with a lovely wreath on it, was displayed in the undertaker’s shop, where it was an object of intense interest and not a little amusement.”

Though Paul’s burial service was not sanctioned by the Church, this did not stop other cat funerals from adopting a religious tone.  An 1897 edition of the Hull Daily Mail reports the story of a clergyman who held a funeral for his cat.  This particular cat is described as an obese, black and white female who was known to go for walks with her master.  Upon her death, the clergyman and his household were “thrown into mourning.”  The Hull Daily Mail reports:

“For three days pussy, whose remains were placed with loving care in a beautiful brass-bound oaken coffin, with inner linings of silk and wool, lay in state in the drawing-room.  At the termination of this period, the rev. gentleman hired a cab, drove to the station, and took a train for the North, bearing with him the oak coffin and the precious remains.  Where the funeral took place seems to be somewhat of a mystery – at least there are conflicting accounts – but of one thing people seem to be certain.  The ceremonial respect which had been accorded to the deceased was maintained to the last, and the burial service, or part thereof, was recited at pussy’s grave.”

The majority of historical reports on cat funerals from the Victorian era are recounted with humor.  Others show a darker response to pet burials.  A September 1885 article in the Edinburgh Evening News relates the story of an “old old woman” in Abercromby Street intent on giving her deceased cat, Tom, a “decent burial.”  She applied to the local undertaker to build Tom a suitable coffin and employed a gravedigger, by the name of Jamie, to dig a grave for Tom in the local burying ground.  As the article states:

“…the funeral, which took place in the afternoon yesterday, was largely attended.  Miss — carried the coffin, and on the way to the graveyard the crowd of youngsters who followed became exceedingly noisy, and being apprehensive that the affair would end in a row, ‘Jamie’ closed the iron gate with the view of preventing any but a select few from entering.  The crowd, however, became even more excited, scaled the wall, hooting and yelling vociferously, crying that it was a shame and a disgrace to bury a cat like a Christian.”

Sorrow by Émile Friant, 1898.

Sorrow by Émile Friant, 1898.

Whether this uproar was truly a result of outrage over Tom being buried “like a Christian” or simply an excuse for rowdy youths to misbehave is unclear.  Regardless, the results of the riot that ensued were exceedingly unpleasant for Tom’s elderly, bereaved owner.  The Edinburgh Evening News reports:

“The coffin was afterwards smashed, and the body of the cat taken out, and ultimately the uproar became so great that the police had to be called to protect the gravedigger and the old lady.  The latter managed to get hold of the dead body of Tom, and with the assistance of Constables Johnston and Smith escaped into a house in the neighborhood, where she remained for some time.  In Abercromby Street, where she resides, a number of policemen had to be kept on duty till a late hour in order to protect her from the violence of the crowd.”

Perhaps the main cause of outrage lies in the fact that Tom’s owner was attempting to bury a cat in the human graveyard.  This was not an uncommon complaint.  Many graveyards did not allow pets to be buried in consecrated ground.  As a result, pet cemeteries were established.  One of the most well-known was the Hyde Park Dog Cemetery, opened in 1881.  As the name denotes, this was primarily a burial ground for dogs.  However, according to author Gordon Stables (qtd. in Animal Death 22), the cemetery also admitted the corpses of “three small monkeys, and two cats.”

Other pet cemeteries existed throughout Victorian England, both public and private.  The pet cemetery at the Essex seat of Sir Thomas Lennard had pet monuments dating as far back as the 1850s.  While the pet cemetery at Edinburgh Castle originated as a burial place for 19th century regimental mascots and officers’ dogs.  And I would be remiss if I did not mention author Thomas Hardy, who had a pet cemetery at his home at Max Gate in Dorchester in which all but one of the headstones were carved with the famous novelist’s own hands.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of headstones and monuments in pet cemeteries of that era are for dogs.  Dogs were incredibly popular pets during the 19th century.  They were typically viewed as selfless, devoted friends and guardians.  While cats were, to some extent, still seen as sly, self-serving opportunists (for more on this, see my article Peter Parley Presents the Treacherous 19th Century Cat).  In addition, as author Laurel Hunt points out in her book, Angel Pawprints:

“Queen Victoria’s fondness for dogs strengthened their role as companions in the Victorian era.”

This bias in favor of dogs had no effect on Victorian cat fanciers whatsoever.  Cat funerals continued to take place with just as much pomp and ceremony as dog funerals.  The public reaction to both was very much the same – amusement, outrage, and occasionally scorn.  One of my favorite examples of the latter is from an article in an 1880 edition of the Portsmouth Evening News which reports on a lady who sent out “black-edged funeral cards” upon the death of her dog.  As a sort of disclaimer, the article states:

“It is superfluous to affirm that the owner of that lamented Fido is a maiden lady.”

It does seem that a great many reports of pet funerals in the 19th century news involve some stereotypical variety of spinster – the Victorian cat (or dog) lady, if you will.  Though humorous, I do not believe this was the norm.  The simple fact is that, throughout history, there have been people who have grieved at the loss of their pets.  During the Victorian era, this grief took shape in elaborate pet funerals.  For cats, who were still persecuted in so many ways, these ceremonies strike me as especially poignant.

Elizabeth Platonovna Yaroshenko by Nikolai Yaroshenko, 1880.

Elizabeth Platonovna Yaroshenko by Nikolai Yaroshenko, 1880.

I close this article with poet Clinton Scollard’s 1893 elegy for his cat, Peter.  In her book Concerning Cats (1900), author Helen Winslow claims that this tribute to a deceased cat is the “best ever written.”  I’ll let you be the judge.

GRIMALKIN.
AN ELEGY ON PETER, AGED 12.

In vain the kindly call: in vain

The plate for which thou once wast fain

At morn and noon and daylight’s wane,

O King of mousers.

No more I hear thee purr and purr

As in the frolic days that were,

When thou didst rub thy velvet fur

Against my trousers.

How empty are the places where

Thou erst wert frankly debonair,

Nor dreamed a dream of feline care,

A capering kitten.

The sunny haunts where, grown a cat,

You pondered this, considered that,

The cushioned chair, the rug, the mat,

By firelight smitten.

Although of few thou stoodst in dread,

How well thou knew a friendly tread,

And what upon thy back and head

The stroking hand meant.

A passing scent could keenly wake

Thy eagerness for chop or steak,

Yet, Puss, how rarely didst thou break

The eighth commandment.

Though brief thy life, a little span

Of days compared with that of man,

The time allotted to thee ran

In smoother metre.

Now with the warm earth o’er thy breast,

O wisest of thy kind and best,

Forever mayst thou softly rest,

In pace, Peter.

In Memoriam by Alfred Stevens, (1823-1906).

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History.  If you would like to help a cat in need, either by providing a home or by donating your time or money, the following links may be useful as resources:

Alley Cat Rescue, Inc. (United States)

The Cats Protection League (United Kingdom)


Works Referenced or Cited in this Article

Animal Death.  Ed. Jay Johnston and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey.  Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2006.

“A Cat’s Funeral.”  Edinburgh Evening News.  September 17, 1885.

“A Cat’s Funeral.”  Hull Daily Mail.  April 1, 1897.

“A Cat’s Funeral.”  Rhyl Record and Advertiser.  February 25, 1899.

“A Dog’s Funeral.”  Portsmouth Evening News.  August 17, 1880.

Hunt, Laurel E.  Angel Pawprints: Reflections on Loving and Losing a Canine Companion.  New York: Hyperion, 1998.

“A Kensington Cat’s Funeral.”  Sheffield Daily Telegraph.  March 5, 1894.

“A Pets’ Cemetery.”  Dover Express.  September 8, 1898.

“Pussy Buried with Pomp.”  Cheltenham Chronicle.  March 10, 1894.

Scollard, Clinton.  “Grimalkin: An Elegy on Peter, Aged 12.”  The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine.  Vol. XLVI.  May.  1893.

Wallis, Steve.  Thomas Hardy’s Dorset Through Time.  Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2013.

Winslow, Helen Maria.  Concerning Cats.  Boston: Lothrop Publishing, 1900.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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52 thoughts on “Cat Funerals in the Victorian Era

      • Judith Brandes Kidd says:

        When I was eight years old, I buried my pet turtle, Sleepy. He reposed in a wicker sewing basket buried beneath my favorite climbing tree in our backyard. I marked his grave with a Bakelite replica of the 1939 New York World’s Fair’s Trylon and Perisphere.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Aw! What a sweet story. And so creative, too, with your choice of grave marker. I think these sorts of ceremonies and rituals really help children deal with the passing of a beloved pet. Thanks for commenting!

        Like

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        And tortoises can be very affectionate pets. So sad that you lost him when you were so young, but it’s hard to know how old they are when they become pets. They are usually ‘full grown’ ie big enough to hibernate at around 30, and we only knew the approximate age of one of ours because she had been given as a christening present to a lady who was 81 when she died, and I had her for another 17 years. She was an African mountain tortoise and I worked out she had probably come back with a soldier from one of the Boer wars. She, and my other rescue tortoises [only one left now, he’s over 70] are also in the back garden, marked by paving slabs.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        I ran across a news item about one in the regency but I didn’t keep it….I should have filed it for you! this one was in some public garden and was reckoned almost 2′ long IIRC. My Thursday – the one from the Boer War – was 15″ long when she died. My current old gentleman, Toddles, whom I bought with my savings instead of the camera lens I was planning on, when I was 13, had a deep depressed fracture of the shell, an inch or more across and it was a good half inch deep, now there;s a definite mark there, but it’s level. that was almost 40 years ago…. I bought him some dedicated tortoise food and he refuses it, preferring greens, selected herbacious border plants, fruit, dandelion flowers, sweet pea flowers and the odd bit of carrion. I keep the foxgloves away from him, they act on tortoises like amphetamines to humans… bombed tortoises zooming about the garden are a sight to see but I;m not sure how good for them it is. Drunken aggressive tortoises on a glut of cherries fallen to the floor is hilarious; watching a pigeon attempting to gorge on the bounty being chased by a tortoise is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Petra S. says:

        A lot of the elaborate death rituals, really a death cult, that happened during the Victorian era… like jewelry made from the hair of loved one’s who had passed…. even wreaths that hung above the fireplaces… all made of the hair of family members that passed….. was due to 3 reasons: 1. Because half of all children died before the age of 10, 1/3 of all women died in childbirth before the age of 30, people were surrounded by death. Ritualizing it even for pets was a way of coping. 2. Queen Victoria carried on an elaborate mourning following Prince Albert’s death. 3. the US was deeply & severely affected by the numbers lost during the Civil War.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        You’re absolutely right, Petra. The high mortality rate during this era had a profound impact on so many things – including the rising popularity of fortune-tellers and spiritualists. Pet funerals, however, stood somewhat apart. They weren’t entirely accepted or acceptable. Even the Victorians who were generally comfortable with the concept of death and mourning had conflicting reactions to ceremonies for pets.

        Like

    • Janelle says:

      I doubt that….there was a far stronger sense of community in that time period. ^
      I do think they were probably quit a bit dramatic and had money and too much time of their hands.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Actually, there were many elderly spinsters who lived pretty isolated lives. Not everyone was in London or a big city – and those that were, did not all have large social circles or family. In addition, pets often filled the child role in a spinster’s life. The loss of one could be extremely upsetting.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Martha English says:

      We speak of photographs of Victorian dead as ‘creepy’. Photography was not common. It was expensive for most people. Often the photographs of dead children eas the only memory families had of that child. The terrible epidemics of the 19 th C are long gone. The movement to not vaccinate forgets that those diseases are still out there. I remember measles and whooping cough. I had them. My eye recrossed because because of measles a kid at my school died of measles. Polio took friends and crippled others.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Very good point about photography, Martha. Yes, many of the Victorian’s means of memorializing lost loved ones do seem morbid or creepy to us. But the Victorians had a different comfort level with death than we do today. I haven’t yet found any Victorian memorial photos of pets “pre-burial.” But that is not surprising, considering the newness of the technology and the expense.

        Like

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    I get so irritated with people who say ‘it’s only a cat’ [or dog, rabbit, tortoise whatever] because one’s pets become family members, all with their own personalities. We have a garden full of little bodies over the decades, but for those who don’t have a garden a pet cemetery is a boon. I know a body is only a shell but I can’t imagine putting puss in a regulation yellow biohazard sack in the bin which is what the shelters are required to do. A funeral of course is something for the living, to permit goodbyes to be said, and to help the grieving process, and where there has been love it is a necessary part of dealing with grief, whether it’s a simple process of digging a hole to bury puss with a favourite blanket and a few flowers or whether it’s the full blown Victorian way of death.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I totally agree, Sarah. None of my pets have had the full blown Victorian funeral yet, but when my beloved rescue dog, Johnny, died in 2010, he was listed in the recently deceased book at the chapel of my Catholic undergraduate school and the sisters included him in their prayers everyday. Of course, given his name, it is entirely possible that they thought he was a human…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sarah says:

    I suppose the whole performance of the Victorian pet funerals you’ve described seem outlandish to us because we shy away from death and it’s rituals far more these days and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. We’ve had to bury two much loved cats in the garden and i think the saying goodbye around their little graves was really important for the children – hell, who am I trying to kid? for me and my husband too! Wonderful post! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thanks Sarah 🙂 I think you’re right. The Victorian’s were very comfortable with death. And they certainly enjoyed their rituals. But I think, when it comes to death, some sort of ceremony or ritual where you can say goodbye is actually a good thing for pet lovers – even the grown up ones like us!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        Perhaps more so; children can have a blindingly simple faith uncontaminated by doctrine, and adults struggle more trying to understand rather than simply to accept. I have told a narrow-minded vicar that if my pets weren’t in heaven, I wasn’t going there because it wouldn’t be a reward for virtue at all but a punishment for loving.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. tammayauthor says:

    I was just seeing a commercial today about some doggie weight loss pills and doggie tread mills and lamenting how the idea of “pet parenting” has gone way too far in the 21st century. Apparently, this is nothing new.

    Tam

    Liked by 1 person

  4. brightonbooks2 says:

    There is a pet cemetery dated from about the beginning of the 20th century in Preston Manor, Brighton, devoted to the pets of the Thomas-Stanford family.

    The garden of a house where I used to live had a little grave yard for my youngest daughter’s pet guinea pigs, complete with cement headstones on which were engraved their names and dates of death.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Perhaps drama does play into some of the bigger 19th century pet funerals, but I really do believe that these ceremonies are just a manifestation of immense grief at the loss of a pet. Add to that the Victorian era’s fascination with death in general – which probably made pet funerals more acceptable than they would have been in another age.

      Like

  5. jeanne229 says:

    Absolutely wonderful post Mimi, and thanks to Carol Hedges for indirectly routing me to your blog (from a Google circles suggestion in my inbox.) Very timely for me as I am comforting a sister and a friend who just lost their beloved Labs to cancer. And though now catless, I have always been greatly fond of felines. Also fascinated with the Victorian age, as so many are. I appreciated your well researched, beautifully illustrated, and intriguing post on a facet of that culture that deserves just the attention you have given it. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thank you for your very kind comment, Jeanne 🙂 I’m so glad you found the article helpful. Losing a much loved pet is incredibly hard. My heart goes out to your sister and friend on losing their dogs. It’s great that you are there to support them.

      Liked by 1 person

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