Gimlet Eye columnist and cat owner D. Keith Mano visits a pet cemetery.
Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran in the August 3, 1973, issue of National Review and is part of a weekend series of classic D. Keith Mano columns.
They tell me there are no stray cats in Peking.
Hartsdale is the oldest. Graves slant down on sloped tiers: mezzanines, dress circles; the dead amphitheatered. Stone doghouses. Catnip mice. Toy bones scattered on the grave sites: a superfluity that, like carrying carbon monoxide to Motown. I wander amused. No marble fire hydrants anyway. A Lilliputian army of Sts. Francis, their pates poked through tonsures, tee shots in impossible lies. Mostly dogs; lots of cats. And on half the gravestones, color cameos: porcelain reproductions of photographs. Mimi with a two-pound ribbon, disgruntled, Fido wearing his doubleknit bathrobe. One toothy chimp in a group shot, master and mistress on either side, looking parental. Our son, the missing link. It’s a four-star idea. I want a 6 x 8 glossy on my headstone. Figure it’s going to be tough enough come Resurrection Day. Let the good Lord have a working blueprint: Fit my Tab A into my Slot B. Not that I mistrust omniscience.
And the unliving prose. Little Toby: “His muddie’s constant pal for twelve years.” Two examples of the Rover heresy. Wackie: “May she play in heaven forever.” Graffen: ”Will wag her loving self into paradise.” Sh’boom, d. 1954, a dog from the era of white sweat sox and penny loafers. Schweppsie Weber: “Our little black rose.” Sally and Toodles with a tomb larger than your average Paris pissoir. Pooch: “Tu seras éternellement dans mon coeur.” Kurt: “Our sweet patient Rotorooter.” (A pet mole?) And a tomb of the unknown K-9, with bronze canteen and a bronze steel helmet, erected for “valiant services rendered in the World War.” You could laugh.
I don’t. The slow, rhythmic work of ovaries thwarted. Jerry: “Mommy’s only baby.” Cleo: “She put joy in my life.” We are cruel to the sterile, as if fertility were a moral instance. Hartsdale has the careful presence of females: false pregnancies, false infant burials here. But there are men, too, and couples. The last name given: Grumpy Goldberg; Baby Blue Ribbon McArdle. It’s not ethnic: Jewish stars and Virgin Marys bless evenhandedly. A matter of deep loneliness. The vital dates run between ten and 13 years: In that short time trust, friendship were established. Hercules, 1901–1913, “Never Forgotten,” though the rememberers lie buried in another cemetery. If we are ephemeral, what are our small retainers? The adage goes, “Rich men have servants and servants have big dogs.” We require indebtedness, dependence. It creates importance in us. To make a friend, borrow something. Dogs have the politeness to recapitulate our neuroses. I knew a man afraid of heights: two legs and four legs quivered together, crouching low. The pet is a Western institution. We regard dogless homes the way we regard an unmarried man: Strangeness, even perversions are assumed.
Aunt Cybelle is getting on. We have learned to make the bed around her. I’ve known Auntie longer than I’ve known my wife: She was my dowry. I remind my wife of this a lot. Auntie expends half-hours deciding whether to sleep the day right-sided or left-sided: Finally she comes down like a flipped coin. And she knits an art-nouveau hairball that is, well . . . exquisite: You don’t get that kind of craftsmanship anymore. We still rope her to the mast when a siren electric can opener whines. There are four other cats, boardinghouse reachers. They have destroyed more tuna than a poaching trawler. Auntie snores implacably. In the dawn light she goes off, a steam safety valve behind my ear. I rise rigid and afraid from a dream of locomotives. Yet, when my pulse is up, there are long resources of sleep and know-nothingness in Aunt Cybelle. It is a sweet depressant to watch her autonomous and full-nerved tail escape licking, as might the kitten that, spinstered, she never had.
There is a coffin showroom at Hartsdale. Posh cigar boxes: It’s as if children had been playing at the death of dolls. I worry: Auntie is, in Eliot’s phrase, “a twenty pounder or I’m a bounder.” Unless she gets taken off by some wasting disease I’ll need the cocker-spaniel size. My showroom lady tiptoes, her shoes whispering. “I don’t know what it is — proteins, vitamins — but we’re getting a lot of big cats.” I get them all the time, “Nice mahogany, highly resistant to termites and decay. Redwood. Pine . . .” She forms a moue of distaste, I moue too. It’s not the time to mention shrouds, “We have a concrete vault; it’s better quality than they make for humans. But we require a $120 endowment.” It’d be fun trying to deduct that on my 1040.
I request a running tally. “Of course, sir. $100 for the plot. $80 for the large casket, $85 for your headstone, $35 for photograph cameo. $20 for the labor. $5 for perpetual care. That’s annual. After three years of nonpayment the land and the remains return.” “Return?” I gasp. “To me? The remains?” “No, the land returns to us. There is no religious ceremony. But we do process very solemnly.” I add up: $325. “This is, ah — the rich are your clientele, I take it.” She shakes her head, “No. Not at all. Perhaps once, before the World War. Ordinary people now. People on Social Security. Older people. Just people. An animal can come to mean a great deal.”
I know the argument. How many earthquake victims relieved, trachoma cases cured for $325? You hear it as a catchphrase: The American people spend more for cat food than for —. It is smart, irrefutable, yet somehow there is a refutation. On the absolute scale of values human life and dog life cannot be balanced out, I presume there are no Hartsdales in Moscow; if there are even suburbs in Moscow. But there is a quality of human life, below which that life is no longer worth living, as there is a caloric intake below which life is impossible. We insist, it is a survival instinct, on certain gross luxuries of sentiment. “Muddie’s constant pal.” Foolishness. But it is an asset of our freedom to be, now and then, ludicrous, impractical. And, yes, selfish.