Three women huddled against the biting January cold and wept as the gravedigger lowered the tiny coffin into the snow-covered earth. They whispered prayers and tossed some dirt into the grave.
“I got her a pine casket because she’s Jewish,” Sandra Richner said of the deceased her beloved Siamese cat. Tassie, who shared her Manhattan home for 18 years. Managing a smile, she wiped away tears as she added, “I was going to get a rabbi.”
Tassie joined nearly 70,000 other animals interred over the last 105 years at the Hartsdale Canine Cemetery in Westchester, the oldest pet burial ground in the country.
While the pet funeral industry has come under fire in the last decade following a fake-grave scandal at the Long Island Pet Cemetery in Middle Island, Hartsdale has maintained a sterling reputation among its loyal following of celebrities and regular folks.
I can’t tell you how many people come here kind of embarrassed and say, ‘If you had asked me 10 years ago if I would ever end up bringing my dog here, I’d have said no way,'” said Edward Martin, a retired Iona College accounting professor who owns the graveyard along with his boyhood friend, Pat Grosso.
“I would never equate an animal to a human being, but a pet comes into your life and becomes a member of the family”
The cemetery saga began in 1896 when Dr. Samuel Johnson, a prominent Manhattan veterinarian, offered his rural Westchester apple orchard as a burial plot for a bereaved woman’s dog.
A reporter friend of Johnson’s heard the tale and did a story in a local paper, which prompted a flood of similar requests from grief-stricken pet owners.
Some early plot holders spent thousands of dollars to inter their furry friends. In 1915, Mrs. M. F. Walsh paid $25,000 for an ornate granite mausoleum weighing more than 50 tons. The mausoleum holds five Walsh pets. At another grave, an imposing, 6-foot stone monument bears an image of a bulldog’s face over the inscription, “Our Loved One Grumpy, Aug. 4, 1913 to Sept. 20, 1926.” A life-sized stone doghouse marks the final resting place of Buster, who died in 1942.
Celebrities and financiers flocked to the cemetery, and often gave their pets elaborate sendoffs. When Hungarian Princess Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy’s pet lion, Goldfleck, died, she held a formal wake at the Plaza Hotel and then buried the big cat in Hartsdale.
His marble headstone reads, “Beneath This Stone Is Buried The Beautiful Young Lion Goldfleck, Whose Death is Sincerely Mourned by His Mistress Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy. New York 1912.”
Infamous millionaire Hetty Green’s dog, aptly named Money, is buried at Hartsdale, as is singer Kate Smith’s pooch, Freckles, “My Devoted Pet for 15 1/2 years.” Mariah Carey, Diana Ross, Robert Merrill, Elizabeth Arden, former Mayor Jimmy Walker, band leader Xavier Cugat, and former Vice President James Sherman Also have plots.
But regular folks, too, bury their loyal companions here under headstones labeled “My Best Pal” or “The Most Loving and Sincerest Friend I ever Had.” “The Rizzos” buried Toni, “A Sweet Little Dog Who Left Wonderful Memories.” Another headstone reads, “Metzie, My One and Only Friend Lies Here.”
Fritzee Schwartz’s headstone features a Star of David, while B. J. Ryan’s has a Celtic cross. Pet owner Marion Robinson had her own German Shepherd Chief, who died in 1925.
Between 850 and 1,000 pets buried at Hartsdale each year, and about 8,000 more are cremated. For $75, pet owners can opt for group cremation; individual cremations start at $175. The average burial costs about $500 for a Chihauhua and $750 for a German Shepherd, not including headstone, Martin said. Upkeep runs about $32 a year.
Tassie’s burial tab came to $535. She was buried in a small plot alongside her best pal, Richner’s Shih Tzu, Us Us, who died in 1991.
“They used to wrestle all the time. My little girls,” said Richner, a single real estate broker, who brought two friends to the service. “It makes you feel better, knowing that they’re here. It’s such a pretty little place.”