Notes from a Graveyard Scholar

Ozark folklore is a recurring theme in my writing, and chasing down the old stories and tall tales has led me off the proverbial beaten path more than once. Sometimes, though, the stories fall right in my lap, as happened a few months ago when I attended the Books in Bloom Literary Festival and met Arkansas writer and independent researcher Abby Burnett.

Abby BurnettAbby has spent years researching death and burial customs, with much of that work presented in Gone to the Grave; Burial Customs of the Arkansas Ozarks, 1850 – 1950, published by the University Press of Mississippi. Other publications include entries for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture as well as articles for county historical societies. She lives in a log cabin in the Boston Mountains when she’s not out photographing tombstones in rural cemeteries. Here’s Abby, talking about her research and the ways we remember the pets who shared our lives…

The worn image on the tombstone in Hot Springs’ Hollywood Cemetery, lit up by afternoon sunlight, is puzzling. Is it a lamb? No, a dog – definitely a dog. A quick check of Stories in Stone; A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, by Douglas Keister (Gibbs Smith, 2004) reveals the meaning: “The virtues of fidelity, loyalty, vigilance, and watchfulness have long been symbolized by man’s best friend.” Surely this was intended on the stone of B.B. Porter, who died at age 42 in 1882, but elsewhere across Arkansas, images of dogs found on modern granite markers don’t have the same meaning. “Nowadays when one sees a carved dog in a cemetery it is probably homage to a beloved pet,” Keister writes.

There is no lack of such homages in pet cemeteries, of course, where humans eulogize their beloved animals. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, here lies our little boy with ears of rust,” is the verse on the grave of Rusty Bucket Bumstead (1991 – 1994) in Rest Haven Cemetery, in Bentonville, Arkansas. Tributes to other dogs and cats include, “You left paw prints all over our hearts,” “Our ‘love sponge’” and “So loved, so loving, so missed.” In Friends of the Pet Cemetery, a considerably larger pet graveyard near Springfield, Missouri, are found these tributes: “He lived for love and food,” “Always a puppy” and, “Friend – Gentleman – Athlete.”

I spend a lot of time in cemeteries because I research and write about death and burial.  I transcribe epitaphs, photograph tombstones, and compile information on everything from the symbolism at the top of a stone to the name of the carver often found near the base. The most heartbreaking epitaphs, or poems, do not upset me but my outpouring of grief in pet cemeteries always catches me off guard.  After all, I live with four elderly dogs and two cats, volunteer at my county’s pet shelter, and serve on its board. Though I wouldn’t cross the street to admire a stranger’s baby, I just might dart across several lanes of traffic to pet a puppy.

This has led to a fascination with the way pets are portrayed on modern markers, ones for humans, that is. I’ve found artwork showing every dog breed imaginable, portraits or cartoons of pets, and dog and cat figurines placed on the markers. Most interesting of all are photoceramics, little disks imprinted with actual photographs then bonded to the front of a tombstone. Photoceramics were invented in France in 1854, and they’re rare in the Arkansas Ozarks’ oldest cemeteries. Perhaps they were too expensive, difficult to obtain, or easily broken. Some tombstones contain circular indentations, evidence of a vanished photoceramic. In modern times, however, these little photos are affordable, unbreakable and plentiful, so much so that some markers sport separate ones for each family member and the dog.

What to make of the photos people choose? One husband and wife’s marker contains a photo of each spouse holding up the same tiny Chihuahua. There’s the haunting photo of the young woman holding her cat against her shoulder, the girl’s face tinted a flesh color but the cat standing out in stark black and white. Though hunter and hound photos are plentiful, one man chose to use a shot of his three hounds treeing an unseen prey. One older photo shows a husband, wife, and dog where both the wife and the dog are leaning away from the beaming husband, as though afraid of him. (People who knew this family assure me that the man was not abusive but I don’t know why wife and dog look so wary.) Others are like hidden puzzles, where the pet is somewhere in the picture.

Occasionally a photoceramic will feature an unconventional pet. Brian Harness, buried in Maplewood Cemetery in Harrison, Arkansas is shown cradling a large fox. Given that Harness was a hunter and a professional taxidermist I thought he might be posing with an especially life-like example of his work. But no, an online obituary showed a different photo of the two, and mentioned that Mr. Harness was survived by his pet fox, Jasper. In this same cemetery a stone bench, at one side of the Johnson family plot, is decorated with a photo of a cow wearing a jaunty razorback-red beret with “Arkansas” knitted in. The most unusual creature is probably found in Hugo, Oklahoma, a town where various traveling circuses spent their winters. There a female snake-charmer is shown holding what appears to be a python with, “To each his own” carved above the frame.

Modern technology has made it possible to put anything – anything – on a tombstone: aerial photos, sonograms, NASCAR logos, the deceased Photo-shopped into a portrait with Jesus. Perhaps someday someone will study these images as seriously as I do study the meaning behind the Ozarks’ oldest symbols (anchors, clasping hands, broken columns). If so, those graveyard scholars will have to make sense of the large numbers of dogs and cats populating the tombstones of the people who loved them so much they considered them members of the family.

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Abby’s book was first published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2014 in hardcover, and is now available in paperback and Kindle editions as well. While she was researching the book, the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) featured her in AETN’s “Silent Storytellers” program. This documentary featured people and organizations “who are passionate about the preservation of cemeteries and memorials in Arkansas.” Here’s the clip:

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Have an image or a story to share? Leave a comment!

For the Love of a Cat

Book #2 in my series introduces a feral feline who settles into the kennel office as though he’d been born there. He’ll take on the customer relations work scorned by Momma Cat–a stray who “came with the house” and prefers dogs to people. I suspect both cats will play a role in forthcoming books, and I hope readers will share their stories of their own felines. Watch this space for a new slideshow dedicated to kitties, and send in your own photos!

In keeping with our current conversation of pets we’ve loved and lost, I’m sharing the words of fellow Arkansas writer Nancy Hartney, who penned this moving tribute to her cat Rosie. Here’s Nancy:

As we age, our worlds take on a different dimension. Cats as well as people even my Rosie, my Second Hand Rose. Named after the song, she passed from hand-to-hand before I was approached to adopt her.

A calico, my first thought had been getting her spayed quickly, followed by I do not need another animal in a three cat, three dog, two-horse household. As fate ruled, she and I lived together twenty-one years.

From the beginning, Rosie ‘talked’ to me. Whenever she needed something, usually from the kitchen, she sat next to my chair before tossing patience aside and meowing until I got up and followed – yes, followed her—to see what she wanted/needed. Ears cocked listening for my footfalls behind and tail held high, she ‘told’ me what she wanted and where in the household it was expected. Generally, two choices reigned supreme—‘I need to go outside’ and ‘I want more food.’

She roamed the yard, the pasture, the barn, the woods. The queen of all she surveyed, she ruled with a velvet paw.She could watch nesting birds come and go feeding their brood, scale the tree, and dig in the nest for their tender hatchlings. Such times, I captured and relegated her to the house until said feathered family grew and took flight. Rabbits and mice also fell within her domain thus consigning her annually to several spring weeks inside while wild creatures grew to independence. Except at night when only the moles were in danger.

Years slipped by and her world narrowed and her ‘talking’ took on an intense hue. She rested in my lap at night watching TV. She sat on the bench next to me at the table and scoffed tidbits. She purred. Bedtime? Rosie waited until I rose from my chair and began the nightly routine then assumed her ‘place’ on the bed.

She spent time hanging in the country flowerbeds, sleeping on deck chairs, and sitting in the sunshine on my patio. Her furry family circle ebbed and flowed, old friends passed and new arrived. Arthritis set in. Joints enlarged. She prowled less in her woods. She missed the sandbox as often as she was on target. Nights consistently spent in. She no longer climbed trees and nor jumped from chair to deck railing to roof. She napped when outside. Ate less. Napped inside. Her days unevenly divided into eating and sleeping with scattered minutes of time reserved for pacing and ‘attending’ to the household.

August 10, 2015, Rosie’s world is re-formed. She roams her beloved woods, sits in the sunshine grooming, and meanders out on feline adventures. Again.

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Nancy Hartney is the author of the award-winning short story collection Washed in the Water: Tales From the SouthYou can read more about Nancy, her pets, and her writing on her blog https://nancyhartney.wordpress.com/.

Living on in our Hearts

For many of us, pets are part of the family, and our lives are enriched by their love and companionship. And when they leave us, the loss creates a void that can stay with us for a long time. Some of us are fortunate to have many years with our pets, as I did with my beloved Alix. She gave me 17 years of love and laughter and loyalty. She’s been gone nearly that long, yet I think of her every day and talk about her often. She lives on in my heart and in my writing (she’s the inspiration for Sweet Pea in the Waterside Kennels series).

Since the first book in my series was published, I’ve offered readers and fans the opportunity to share photos of their own pets. You can see those dogs on the slideshow here on this site. I’ve been honored to hear stories from readers and fans about their own much-loved pets. I’ve learned there are many ways to honor the lives of our pets, from stories to eulogies to memorial statues to  photographs and more.  Over the next week or two I’ll share some of the stories and information that’s come my way, beginning with the story of Scooter which came my way via email from Johnny Compton and his wife–both dog lovers who “read all the dog related mysteries we can find.” He sent photos of their Beagles. Here’s his story:

Scooter 7/29/2007 - 8/9/2014

Scooter 7/29/2007 – 8/9/2014

Scooter passed away one year ago yesterday. As you may have guessed, we are Beagle people.  Living in rural area where we have a big fenced yard, dog door, where barking is not a problem (one of our neighbors raises German Shorthair Pointers), and plenty of wildlife plus domestic livestock to keep them busy, Beagles work out very well.

We got Scooter when he was ten weeks old, the runt of the litter but the little guy stole our hearts when we first laid eye on him.  We brought him home with us and we all bonded almost instantly.  He loved everyone and every other animal he met.  When he was about three months old, we got Skeeter (eight weeks).  He only took a short while to accept her and the two for them bonded.  Scooter turned out to be a 15″ Beagle and weighed just over 30 pounds as an adult (Skeeter is 13″).  He loved to ride and let me drive “his” pickup when we went on a drive together.  He was funny, loved to play but I could always see the wheels turning in that sharp mind of his.

He met his early demise as the result of an encounter with a deer.  The doe had jumped our yard fence with a fawn outside the fence.  Scooter was at the back of the house and probably surprised her.  All we know is he came flying in the house with a small cut right between his eyes and after a month of treatments and pain medication, he went down due to severe pain and we had to have him put down.  He probably wanted to befriend the deer as he had tried many times in the past.

He is missed and we now have Bree to help fill the void.

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Have a story of your own? I invite you to share in the comments!

Art Devoted to Dogs

AKC Museum of the Dog

If you’re anywhere close to St. Louis, head over to the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog. The museum has a Fido Friendly Visitation Policy and welcomes obedient dogs on a leash. You’ll find treats, fresh water, and ample space to exercise your dog while you’re visiting. The museum, located at 1721 S. Mason Road in beautiful Queeny Park, West St. Louis County, Missouri, is open year-round; find hours and directions here. Here’s their purpose statement:

The AKC Museum of the Dog is dedicated to the collection, preservation, exhibition, and interpretation of the art, artifacts and literature of the dog for the purposes of education, historical perspective, aesthetic enjoyment and in order to enhance the appreciation for and knowledge of the significance of the dog and the human/canine relationship.

It’s rare indeed to find a museum that openly welcomes our canine friends, and even more unusual to find one that actually has dogs on the presentation schedule. From the museum’s page:

Don’t miss out on Guest Dog of the Week on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, March through October. Guest Dog of the Week was started in 1987 with more than one thousand dogs presented to the public in two decades. By invitation, responsible dog owners are invited to bring canine companions to meet Museum visitors. Individuals are encouraged to ask questions about breed temperament, dog ownership, rescue programs, and more! Call the Museum at 314-821-3647 during regular hours for a current schedule of Guest Dogs.

Can’t make it to the museum?  You can also find information about the museum via the AKC website. That’s where I learned about the “queen of canine portraitists” Maud Earl, whose work attracted the attention and patronage of Queen Victoria and many others. Born in London in 1864, she moved to New York City around 1915 where, according to AKC staff writers: “Her reputation preceded her, and she quickly became the darling of America’s leading dog fanciers who wanted their great champions immortalized on canvas.” (You can read the entire article here.)

Included in that same AKC article are these images; I’m reposting them here with the AKC staff writers’ commentary–which includes quotes by the artist and experts–for all to appreciate her work.

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“Two Pointers on Point in a Field” © Maud Earl

This picture, dated 1905, hangs in the AKC collection in New York. Art dealer and historian William Secord writes: “Maud Earl acknowledged that to portray the correct conformation, expression, coat texture and other attributes of the dogs she painted, she enjoyed the tutelage of some of the greatest breed experts of 19th and early 20th century dogdom. The eminent British authority, William Arkwright, was her mentor regarding the characteristics of Pointers.”

 

“Ch. Nunsoe Duc de la Terrace of Blakeen” © Maud Earl

“Ch. Nunsoe Duc de la Terrace of Blakeen” © Maud Earl

This 35 x 60-inch canvas was commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. Sherman Hoyt in 1935 to commemorate their famous standard Poodle, still considered one of the greatest show dogs and sires of all time. He was the first of his breed to win Best in Show at Westminster. (See “The Toast of Blakeen” for more on this magnificent champion.)

 

“Yorkshire Terrier” © Maud Earl

“Yorkshire Terrier” © Maud Earl

In this delightful picture from the AKC Museum of the Dog collection, Earl captures the mischief and vivacity so typical of Yorkies. “You can’t paint dogs unless you understand them,” Earl said. “I don’t mean merely from the fancier’s point of view. You must know whether they are happy and comfortable, and if not, why not. You must know how to quiet them when they become excited and nervous. You must know all their little likes and dislikes, and this knowledge comes from long experience.”

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Want to learn more about Maud Earl? I suggest this article from Gray’s Sporting Journal, or this post from the William Secord Gallery.

Find more information about the museum and see lovely images on the AKC Museum of the Dog’s website and Facebook page. (Follow them on Twitter, too: @DogArtMuseum.)