By Jay Duret
I am a sucker for a good pet cemetery. I don’t like to admit it – it’s the kind of thing that brands you as creepy – but a pet cemetery can offer so much fine material. There is danger of course. Pet owners are a fierce group and they can be nasty if they believe you are disrespecting their departed. And though I have inner voices that prompt me to mockery and yes, disrespect; I can control them if I need to. This I believe.
One of the very best pet cemeteries is the Presidio Pet Cemetery, located next to the Presidio National Cemetery just a few hundred yards from the entranceway to the Golden Gate Bridge. Here the mortal remains of the pets of soldiers find everlasting peace. Brownie and Little Bit and Robby Shakespeare – a hamster, bird and military horse, respectively – lay together in eternal repose.
Quite by chance I learned that there was another fine pet cemetery in the Bay Area. I was in a restaurant in the Mission and stopped into a store called The Woods that advertised its wares as “curiosities, oddities and bric-a-brac”. Just my kind of place. I stopped in and poked around among the stuffed armadillos, paper mache heads of Chinese dancers, a cluster of arrows arranged like a bouquet of flowers. I was on my way out when I noticed a framed photo on the wall of a small headstone beneath a somber sky that said:
Our Beloved Companion
1985 – 1999”
“Whoa. Where is that?” I asked the woman who tended the store. She came out from behind the counter to peer at the photo with me.
“It’s the Pet Cemetery,” she said.
“No I think it is in Colma. My husband took it.”
“Yes. He loves Pet Cemeteries. He did a book on them. See?” She pointed onto a shelf where there was a stack of leaflet-sized books. I picked one up. It was called Small Rewards by Stan Banos.
“Yeah,” she said, “he loves to go around to pet cemeteries and take photos.”
I leafed through the book, filled with black and white photos of the headstones and memorials of animals. Many were from a cemetery in Colma, a city just south of San Francisco. Mr. Banos had a great eye for a tombstone:
Here lies some great hamsters
Buffy 12-99 to 11-9-00
They will be missed
Mr. Banos’ book was not exactly bedside reading but I kept it at hand for ready reference and one day I decided to take a trip south and visit the pet cemetery in Colma: Pet’s Rest.
There was so much about Pet’s Rest to like. First there was the name. Pet’s Rest had a tidy compactness that I admired. And it was almost alliterative. (I brushed aside my inner voices who briefly wondered whether the owners of Pet’s Rest considered the risk that those with sloppy diction would transpose the “t” and the “s” in “Pets”. I just didn’t go there.) Ok, the name was a bit euphemistic, though that is not unusual in necrology. I didn’t have any problem with that. I will go further; I liked it. The idea that our pets were now at rest was just … nice. Blackie and Shasha and Big Bird. They should be at rest. And I for one was glad about it.
And so it was that I arrived at Pet’s Rest as a supporter and an admirer. I had no chip on my shoulder. The usual evil voices in my head were quiet this once. I had neither disrespect nor satire in mind. I was at Pet’s Rest to pay my respects. But once again life did not cooperate.
Pets’ Rest was tucked in between two human cemeteries. Trim and tidy, with trees and the shade of a shrub marking the rear of the property. Merry little graves and markers. The final home for Grisha and Pudding Salazar and Goldilocks.
I wandered around for ten minutes taking it all in. What a nice and cheerful place. I could visit without mockery! In fact, who could mock such a merry place?
I turned to leave and it was then that I noticed the mural. Big and blue. I hadn’t taken it in when I entered but as I exited I couldn’t miss it:
What was this about? On the left there was an azure pool where flamingos dunked their heads and frogs cavorted. Just above the pond there was a green lawn of sorts, kind of a putting green, and on the green there was a collection of critters: snakes and turtles, rats and spiders. Above the green and dominating the mural was a concrete staircase ascending into the sky.
The steps of the staircase were populated with higher order animals – pheasant and skunk and rabbit and squirrel. Mostly they faced upwards and one sensed that they were all climbing up that staircase. Highest up was a creature that appeared to be a cat and she was bathed in the white and glorious light that arose from a horizon beyond a surprising sea in the distance.
The stairway climbed and climbed into the sky until it finally receded into nothingness. At the very top, there was a big dog with a key around his neck and a halo on the top of his head. The dog faced the staircase, watching patiently, benevolently, as the animals climbed.
I paused in front of the mural to work out its meaning. The staircase was clearly a stairway to heaven. And that was the key to heaven around the dog’s neck. I wasn’t really sure why the dog was there. I guess the idea was that in the world of pets, a big dog was top dog, but honestly that didn’t make much sense to me. What was that cat going to think when she arrived in heaven and found a damn dog waiting? That wasn’t going to go well.
And that wasn’t the only problem. What about the critters down on the putting green? Were they not welcome on the pathway to heaven? Were they, what, in training? Noviates? Or maybe they just didn’t qualify for an afterlife. But if that was the case, where was the dividing line? I would have guessed that reptiles would be below the line, mammals and birds above, except there was a rat down there with the spiders and snakes and as best I recollected from my biology, rats were mammals just like the mouse and squirrel who were on the stairway. Perplexing business.
I started to wonder about the owners of Pet’s Rest. Presumably they had commissioned this mural. They were clearly making a statement. But what had they been trying to say? Beyond the awkwardness of determining who could climb the staircase, there was that bigger mystery: why was there a big dog at the top with a halo on his head? I thought about it for a while and then I had an Ah Ha! moment; Saint Peter was a busy guy. He didn’t have time to meet animals at the pearly gates. He had to delegate that job to a different saint, and who better than Saint Bernard? Yes, that was it. Saint Bernard was tending to the souls of the dead pets as they arrived at the door of heaven.
There was whimsy to that explanation and I am a sucker for whimsy so I made ready to leave Pet’s Rest, satisfied that I had worked out the deeper meaning of the mural and happy that the explanation had quieted my restless inner voices. And that would have been that except before leaving I decided to take one more gravesite photo and I turned back into the cemetery proper to snap a photo of the joint gravestones of Peppy and Missy:
Peppy’s marker had a standard missive, but Missy’s contained the essential clue to unraveling the mystery of the mural:
God is Dog spelled backwards.
Now everything made sense, or at least more sense. The Saint Bernard at the top of the mural wasn’t just a stand in for St Peter. He was God. And the owners of Pet’s Rest? They were dyslectic.
– Jay Duret
Jay Duret is a writer and illustrator living in San Francisco. His YA novel, Nine Digits, was published by Second Wind Publishing in December. See the book trailer here. Follow Jay’s work at www.jayduret.com. The evil voices in Jay’s head are displayed daily. See the full collection here.