Westchester County cemeteries have their fill of famous people. Judy Garland, James Cagney, Babe Ruth, Joan Crawford and George Gershwin as starters. And then there are those beings who had Westchester County selected for them. These eternal residents have such names as Clarence, Dotty, Cindy and Sandy. There’s also Sally and Toodles plus their three siblings whose remains are held in a fifty ton granite mausoleum built in 1917 by Mrs. M. F. Walsh. This very special cemetery, once an apple orchard, is now The Hartsdale Canine Cemetery founded in 1896 and the resting place for over 70,000 animals including a lion’s cub. Having grown up in Westchester County, I would often see the cemetery as I was driven up and down Central Avenue in Hartsdale and later, as I sat behind the wheel.
So why do I tell you about The Hartsdale Canine Cemetery? Until a few months ago, I could intellectualize about the importance of pets in peoples’ lives, but never understood the need for a canine cemetery. Wasn’t the backyard good enough or cremation via the local pet hospital? That all changed when I received a call from Dotty, my client’s Peter caregiver. “Micki,” she said to me, “Oliver died. He’s lying under Pete’s chair and Pete thinks he is resting or sleeping.” She was beyond frantic, “What do I do?” As an Aging Life Care Specialist, I have needed to do a lot of unusual tasks over twenty-five years, but this was a first.
As Peter lived close by in New Rochelle, I was over to his house in a few minutes. Just long enough to come up with a plan of action. I called Dotty and told her my plan. I arrived at Pete’s house and went over to Oliver and said “good morning,” to him. I repeated my greeting a few times and then had Dottie do the same. All along, Pete was watching and listening. After a few minutes I said to Pete that I thought something was wrong with Oliver. Then Dotty said the same thing. We asked Pete to call him. We then gently brought Oliver out from under Pete's living room chair. “Pete, I said, “I think Oliver is dead, he’s not responding to any of us.” That automatic response of “No,” much as I hear when I inform clients’ of the death of a spouse or a parent, was happening now, here. His eyes welled and he said, “It can’t be.” We let Pete call to Oliver again, and then the silence of the moment was the response to his finality. Pete go it.
Pete asked that we put Oliver, a toy poodle, in his lap. He wanted to hold him and pet him as he had done countless times. Dotty and I walked out of the room so Pete could be alone with Oliver. We then talked about next steps with Pete. Cremation? The Hartsdale Canine Cemetery? “No,” Pete said, “right in the backyard between the two lilac bushes. Dotty wrapped Oliver in a soft blue blanket. I could hear the lawn being mowed across the street and went over to the gardeners and asked if they could dig a hole. We showed them Oliver. Despite the language barrier, they understood.
Slowly, with Dotty and me helping Pete, he made his way down the stairs to the backyard. He watched as the gardeners dug the hole, placed Oliver in the ground and returned the soil. The two lilac bushes to perpetually watch over Oliver.
So perhaps you now understand what Oliver and Pete taught me. We mourn and grieve for those we love, no matter what their being. At the Hartsdale Canine Cemetery, the inscription on Sally and Tootles mausoleum says it with the love of their owner: "My true-love hearts, who would lick the hand that had no food to offer." Thanks, Oliver, rest in peace.