A mobile billboard is rolling around Indianapolis Indiana until April 20th pleading for help finding Boomer, a poodle thieved from the car of his owner Eddie Williams. Williams purchased the billboard to circulate through the city for five days offering a $1500 reward for the return of Boomer, no questions asked. The billboard rental cost $1950, in addition to the cost of hiring a private investigator to assist, but Williams dismissed the cost, indicating “I don’t care about the money. What I care about is Boomer.” Williams is a truck driver who travels with his dog, and he said that “He’s not a dog to me he’s a little human. My little human, and he’s my travelling companion.”
The lengths Williams has gone to secure Boomer just a week before Lost Dog Awareness Day probably do not surprise many other pet owners. Boomer is simply one of many pets granted a status that places them firmly alongside humans while illuminating the philosophical complexities of human and natural relationships, childhood, public health, and consumer culture. Boomer and his peers are distinctive if not unique material things quite unlike prosaic commodities, cast as anthropomorphized “family members” endowed with nearly all of the fundamental characteristics we associate with humans.
Domesticated cats, dogs, and other animals have long ago assumed a status distinct from other material things. Historian Keith Thomas traces the roots of what we recognize as pet ownership—admitting the animal into the house, granting it a name, refusing to consume its flesh—to the 16th century. Many of our contemporary notions of pethood took full form in the 19th century, and in the Victorian world Katherine Grier argues that pets were often viewed as disciplinary mechanisms, with animals like dogs believed to teach boys how to be sensitive adults.
Few material dimensions of pethood confirm their unique status more than pet cemeteries. Pet burials with systematic ritual and mortuary preparation reach into antiquity, and scattered burials of pets occurred in the 19th century. Soldier’s dogs began to be buried at Edinburgh Castle as early as 1840, but the earliest pet burial grounds were not established until the late 19th century. In 1881 a corner of London’s Hyde Park became the final resting place for a single dog, Cherry, and Cherry was followed until 1915 by a host of roughly 300 dogs and cats alongside a few birds and at least one monkey. In Paris the Cemetery of the Dogs and other Domestic Animals (Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques) was established in 1899. Classed as a Historical Monument in 1987, the Art Nouveau cemetery includes the remains of Rin Tin Tin, who had been rescued in France during World War I.
The first American claim to a pet cemetery is perhaps New York’s Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. Established in 1896, the cemetery today holds more than 80,000 animals ranging from dogs to lion cubs enshrined beneath modest markers as well as monumental memorials. A 1917 dog mausoleum constructed for Mrs. M.F. Walsh holds “My Little True Love Hearts, Who Would Lick the Hand That Had no Food to Offer,” and the 1923 War Dog Memorial commemorates military dogs lost in World War I. Hartsdale and the pet cemeteries that emerged in the early 20th century were predominately the resting places for the pets of wealthy urbanites. The Clara-Glenn Pet Cemetery in Atlantic City opened in 1918 and now serves as the final resting place for more than 3000 animals; the Los Angeles Pet Cemetery was established in 1928 and holds over 40,000 animals; and Aspin Hill Memorial Park was established in 1921 in Silver Spring, Maryland and is the final resting place of seven of J. Edgar Hoover’s dogs, beginning with the burial of his dog Spee De Bozo in 1934.
Pet cemeteries make a variety of claims for pets as family members with human attributes and kinship status, if not immortal souls. The appearance of photographs on pet grave markers came as early as 1935 at Hartsdale, but Stanley Brandes found that such images became much more common in about 1990, a pattern that Richard Chalfen has also noted in Japan. These images on grave markers seem to underscore pets’ increasingly firm status as anthropomorphized “family members.” Brandes argues that post-World War II markers tend to include many more kinship references: e.g., Brandes notes Hartland markers that refer to the deceased as the “Third Member of the Family”; “Beloved Member of Our Family”; and “All My Love/Until We Meet Again/Mommy.” Brandes makes a strong case that the increase in religious symbols on markers since the 1980’s also mirrors an increasingly prevalent belief that pets possess a religious essence if not souls, which does not seem to be part of the symbolism on most pet markers before World War II. In January, a retired Virginia police officer spoke in support of a state bill that would allow joint human/pet burials, invoking all of these themes of kinship and faith. He and his wife did not have children, and he told the Washington Post that “It was either adopting some human babies or adopting some doggie babies, and we chose the dogs. Our dogs are our family. We’re all created by God. And there’s no reason that we cannot be together at our final resting place.”
A massive industry now supports pet ownership, including commodities from chains to invisible fences to identification chips; grooming services; medications; pet insurance; and cemeteries. Observers sometimes reduce pet ownership to misplaced expense, singling out the lavish comforts that can an affluent pet owner can provide their fortunate animal. Bitch New York, for instance, sells dog apparel, accessories, and furnishings such as astounding dog houses costing as much as $10,000. For cat owners, A Hidden Hollow makes enormous indoor cat trees. In addition to pet cemetery spaces, the pet mortuary goods sold to grieving human companions include pine caskets, a broad range of pet memorials, pet cremation urns, and pet cremation jewelry.
Approached alongside the everyday material needs of people, these expenses appear at best absurd and selfish, but the caricature of the indulgent wealthy pet owner risks ignoring the intense emotional investment people have in their relationship with pets; this is precisely the point made by Eddie Williams as he openly ignored the expense of finding Boomer. Pets are certainly a distinctive consumer good, but the legion of handmade dog houses and individual pet burials in American backyards reflects that mass marketed materiality has not determined how we view the material dimensions of pethood. However, pets are increasingly firmly situated in a consumer culture that stresses humans’ moral responsibility to their pets, a responsibility that extends to a host of commodities that are often cast as essential to a devoted “family member’s” life and death. The American Pet Products Association estimates that the moral responsibility to animal companions will produce $58.51 billion dollars in expenditures in 2014 (pet food, at $22.6 billion, is the largest of those expenses).
Nevertheless, human commitment to animal companions certainly extends well beyond expenses alone or the emotions we may have for other material things. A Massachusetts pet cemetery proprietor, for instance, indicates that many families will leave material tokens in their pets graves, ranging from dog biscuits to “locks of hair or even a McDonald’s hamburger.” A host of virtual pet cemeteries have extended companions’ memorialization to the web, but for many people a virtual memorial is not a sufficient show of devotion, with increasingly more pet owners pressing to spend their eternal rest with their animal companions. About 700 cremated human remains had been buried alongside their pets at Hartsdale since the 1920’s. The state briefly intervened in 2011, but in 2013 the deceased were again allowed to be cremated and buried alongside their pets in New York’s pet cemeteries (most American pet cemeteries appear to permit human/animal internments). Hermitage Pennsylvania’s Hillcrest Memorial Park People and Pet Garden offers the option of being buried in the same lot with your pet (or in adjacent lots for those with multiple pets); the Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium, Maryland offers cremation benches that will hold both human and pet remains; Standing Rock Cemetery in Kent, Ohio granted access to joint human/pet burials in 2012 but a year later the section remained empty; and Jefferson Memorial Cemetery in Pittsburgh allows joint internments in its Garden of Faithful Friends.
Eddie Williams’ heartbroken devotion to his poodle clearly is not unique or perhaps even unusual. While much of pethood appears governed or significantly shaped by consumer culture, there remains a genuine human devotion to animal companions that is reflected in the scores of tattered lost dog signs on American telephone poles. Clearly many pet owners see their animals as trusted companions for at least portions of their owners’ lives, and most have embraced the notion of family and approach their pets’ mortality with codes of dignity much like those we grant to people.
2010 The Necrogeography of Pet Memorial Spaces: Pets as Liminal Family Members in Contemporary Japan. Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief 6(3):304-335. (subscription access)
2009 The Meaning of American Pet Cemetery Gravestones. Ethnology 48(2):99-118. (PDF download)
2003 Celebrating Life After Death: The Appearance Of Snapshots In Japanese Pet Gravesites. Visual Studies 18(2):144-156. (subscription access)
Florence T. Cox
1928 Tombstones in Dog Cemetery Bear Sentiments That Reveal Man’s Love for Canine Friends. Brooklyn Daily Eagle 14 October:68.
Katherine C. Grier
2006 Pets in America: A History. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
Lucy Jen Huang Hickrod and Raymond L. Schmitt
1982 A Naturalistic Study of Interaction and Frame: The Pet as “Family Member.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 82(11):55-77. (subscription access)
2002 A Place for the Animal Dead: Pets, Pet Cemeteries and Animal Ethics in Late Victorian Britain. Ethics, Place & Environment 5(1):5-22. (subscription access)
2004 Pet Funerals and Animal Graves in Japan. Mortality 9(1):42-60. (subscription access)
1983 Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800. Allen Lane, London.
Eddie Williams and Boomer sign image from WTHR
Hartsdale Cemetery gates image from Natalie Maynor (flickr)
Hartsdale markers image from Bitch Cakes (flickr)
Our Baby Precious marker image from Adam Schweigert
Pets Rest Cemetery image from cactusbones (flickr)
War Dog Memorial image from JMReidy
This week an FBI art crime team announced that it is investigating a collection from central Indiana that includes a vast range of material things from all over the world, ranging from World War II items to stone tools to human remains. I have absolutely no connection to this project that happens to be in my neighborhood, but archaeologists and FBI officers who have surveyed the collection have publicly confirmed that it has astounding global and temporal scope and includes thousands of objects. For archaeologists and observers committed to preservation, the most important implications of the investigation are perhaps not about the specific things in the collection and their ultimate disposition. Instead, we might be more alarmed by the public response to the investigation, which has rallied to defend the legal footing for such collections, attack the role of the government and archaeologists patrolling artifact trade, and ignore the moral dimensions of human remains as collectibles.
After a news conference this week, the blogosphere theatrically lit up with property rights defenses, conspiracy theories, racist xenophobia, and attacks on the President. Rather than illuminate how materials such as human remains and mortuary artifacts might be best preserved under genuine museum conditions or returned to legal descendants, the press and blogosphere have fixed on painting the state—and allied archaeologists—as a step away from raiding all our coffee cans of arrowheads. This is probably an emotionally satisfying response to creeping wariness of the state, but it avoids the moral issues at the heart of this and many more cultural patrimony cases: human remains, mortuary artifacts, and unique culturally specific artifacts have been reduced to the status of property no different than any other thing and accorded no dignified treatment or preservation that is informed by descendants. During a week that many people raced to ensure that National Geographic did not air a show with World War II German soldiers’ remains, the Indiana investigation has been greeted by a contrasting defense of personal property and nearly no commitment to the dignity of human remains now claimed as collectibles. Read the rest of this entry
In 1855 the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum opened, and by the time it moved in 1935 thousands of patients had been buried on the hospital grounds. The Mississippi asylum’s story is by no means unique: A vast range of mentally ill, developmentally delayed, and chronically ill Americans found themselves captive in dehumanizing institutions, lost to desperate and distant families and unceremoniously buried by the state. Much of archaeology’s mortuary landscape is peopled with similar lives that ended in asylums, battlefields, slave quarters, distant workplaces, prisons, and long-forgotten cemeteries.
At its best, archaeology dignifies these lives by treating their stories and forlorn remains with scientific rigor and moral respect. When the University of Mississippi took aim on the former asylum grounds Mississippi State University’s Nicholas Hermann led a team that surveyed the site to document and preserve the scores of dead patients now consigned to unmarked graves alongside the contemporary Medical Center. It is this moral notion of dignity that was violated by National Geographic Channel International’s “Nazi War Diggers,” which released (and then retracted) a promotional video last week on the four-episode series documenting the recovery of wartime dead who “lie rotting under World War Two’s Eastern Front.” This week the channel abruptly placed the series on “indefinite” delay (and removed all traces of it from their web page), awkwardly acknowledging that it was reviewing the series “while questions raised in recent days regarding accusations about the program can be properly reviewed.” Read the rest of this entry
In the waning moments of World War II the Soviet Army launched a massive Baltic offensive, and the German Army Group Courland was among the Nazi units that became isolated along the eastern front until the surrender in May 1945. Between its formation in October 1944 and the surrender in May 1945, six major engagements were fought by the Army Group, with about 189,000 Germans surrendering to the Soviets. Like every wartime landscape, the region was littered with material culture, ranging from arms and vehicles to human remains, and like many World War II landscapes this relatively recent material heritage has long been pilfered by collectors. The excavators who seek out the material remains of the war for pillage and profit are often referred to as “black diggers,” in contrast to “white diggers” who are working to recover wartime dead in places like the Eastern Front, where perhaps four million dead remain missing in action.
The assault on the remains of the Army Group Courland is now somewhat surprisingly being spearheaded by National Geographic, which is promoting its alarming reality show “Nazi War Diggers.” A host of archaeologists immediately responded to a video from the show that featured human remains recovery that broke from all standard archaeological recovery methods and most standards of human dignity, let alone archaeological ethics (and the channel hastily removed the video and posted an awkward defense). The show features several avocational collectors (including a war artifact dealer) superficially committed to preserving the remains of the war, including human remains. Read the rest of this entry
A host of fashion gurus, marketing mavens, and subcultural theorists have long championed spectacular stylistic distinction as a politically empowering and self-affirming force. These observers define style as an aesthetic and material expression of selfhood that confirms our uniqueness and displays our links to circles of like-minded people. This month, though, New York magazine’s Fiona Duncan was the latest observer mystified by the emergence of sameness: that is, instead of seeking out distinguishing style and visibly discernible brands, many consumers instead appear to be embracing the plain and non-descript, trooping off to secure the innocuous jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers hawked at the likes of Old Navy and Abercrombie and Fitch. Instead of looking to the red carpet for our fashion cues and monitoring the elite for material standards, at least some of us appear to be parroting Jerry Seinfeld’s garb and venturing to Costco for household material tips.
Archaeologists and style-makers alike tend to assume that personal and group identities will inevitably be marked off by visible difference, making style a visual code that somewhat theatrically displays our singular identities. Stylistic distinction certainly has not been read its death rites, but aesthetic and behavioral uniformity can no longer be reduced simply to disempowering assimilation. The archaeological question is how stylistic homogeneity and the appearance of banality may have radical political implications and not simply reflect the sheep being led to consumer culture’s slaughter. Read the rest of this entry
Much of the apprehension once sparked by youth culture has now been reduced to consumer theatre: any suburban teen or 20-something can don punk, goth, or hippie style supplied by chain stores that sell pre-torn jeans, mass-produced tie-dye shirts, or black nail polish. Youth culture may once have referred to a generationally distinct experience, but today it is shorthand for a marketing demographic, a consumer identity that fancies creative and even rebellious personalities are confirmed in shopping. The contemporary youth marketplace is populated with contrived “edginess” projected onto the likes of Iron Maiden shirts, cannabis earrings, and shotgun shell shot glasses, but it is not clear that those trinkets or shows of stylistic resistance pose any significant threat to the established order of things.
Post-war youth experience has been distinguished by a progressively persistent marketplace appeal to boomers and successive waves of Gen X-Y-and-Z’s that has aspired to sell youth resistant aesthetics. On the one hand, mass-produced commodities tend to reduce genuine subversiveness to aesthetics or reproduce reactionary politics behind the guise of ironic humor. Bands pilfered from history become an aesthetic “look”; racy promiscuity clumsily poses as independent morality; and drug allusions paint drug consumption simply as a pleasure pathologized by elder ideologues.
On the other hand, though, youth culture is a rich terrain of digital spaces, musical tastes, sexualities, and materiality that ideologues rush to manage yet can never predict or control. The caricature of a homogeneous youth culture bound by birthdays ignores the diversity of contemporary experiences and the degree to which youth consumers acknowledge the patent absurdity of consumer culture. The wall of sex, drug, and rock shirts at mall stores may be less about public generational revolt than they are soliloquys: consumers clad in Pink Floyd shirts imagine and find pleasure in their perceived creativity and its violation of bourgeois normality. Read the rest of this entry
In the wake of World War II, Ukranian farmer Dmytro met his eventual wife Sophia in a displaced persons camp, and the couple migrated to the US in 1949. The former Nazi prisoner and his wife made their way to Syracuse, where Sophia died during a miscarriage in 1951. In the wake of her death Dmytro declined and was hospitalized at Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane.
Dmytro arrived at Willard in May, 1953 with a plain brown leather suitcase laden with personal photographs, a Washington Monument thermometer, a carved dog knick knack, immigration paperwork, flowers (from his wedding, for which he had a photograph), notebooks laden with complicated mathematical work, and a clock amidst some personal effects. The things were idiosyncratic but consequential invocations of Dmytro’s life, prosaic things he or his friends may have hoped would anchor him in the face of mental illness. Dmytre (as he came to be known in Willard) remained in the hospital until 1977, spending much of his time painting and eventually moving to some smaller homes before his death in 2000.
Dmytro’s suitcase remained behind at Willard, along with over 400 other suitcases of patients who arrived at the hospital in similarly bleak life moments clasping simply a few things. On the one hand, the suitcases are not especially unlike any archaeological things: long separated from the people who once held them, the suitcases hold assemblages of things around which we now weave narratives about the people who once carried them into Willard. On the other hand, though, words seem to clumsily capture the desperation and disconnection of Willard patients like Dmytro. Jon Crispin’s continuing photo project documenting the suitcases focuses on the visual and material dimensions of the suitcases in an effort to tell the patients’ stories with aesthetically compelling yet prosaic things. The sober measured steps of conventional archaeological storytelling might be expanded by confronting the intersection of materiality, aesthetics, and our own emotional reactions to these things. Read the rest of this entry
In the annals of consumer activism, last week’s protest of Eurasian Economic Commission regulations may not seem especially momentous. Consumer movements have often been at the heart of consequential political moments: Nonimportation Agreements and the Boston Tea Party rejected state control of one of the American colonies’ most prized commodities; antebellum free labor stores lobbied for purchasing goods that were not produced by captive labor; and “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns by African Americans made consumer space a battleground for civil rights from the 1920’s onward. Last week that activist heritage was revisited by women gathered in Moscow, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to protest a Eurasian Economic Commission ban against the sale of underwear containing less than 6% cotton, which eliminates all lace lingerie. Thirty Kazakh women in Almaty were sent to jail while wearing panties on their head and chanting “freedom to panties.”
This may have somewhat different historical consequence than the Greensboro sit-ins, but it is symptomatic of the political meaningfulness invested in prosaic commodities and the way such things fuel contemporary political consciousness and activism. Things have always been moralized and politicized, but Jean-Christophe Agnew argues that in the second quarter of the 20th century Americans’ politics began to be articulated in consumption; Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America argues that American rights are measured by access to consumer goods despite the persistence of longstanding class, racist, and gendered barriers to such access. It is one thing to argue that a material thing like lingerie is politicized; it is another to suggest that our public political practice springs from consumption, that we articulate our rights and the state’s obligations in response to our material desires and consumer experiences. Read the rest of this entry
Westerners have long been fascinated by poverty, simultaneously enchanted by human resolve in the face of hardship and anxious about gross human injustices in the midst of affluence. In 1896, for instance, traveler H.C. Bunner noted that “I have missed art galleries and palaces and theatres and cathedrals (cathedrals particularly) in various and sundry cities, but I don’t think I ever missed a slum.” Bunner and many of the observers chronicling the lives of the poor often painted pictures of impoverishment that are patently ridiculous at best, and in many cases the representations of penury are simply reprehensible.
One of the most crass contemporary interpretations of poverty may be the Emoya Shantytown Hotel, a faux South African “informal settlement” in Bloomfontein borrowing the aesthetics of South African townships. The hotel allows guests to “experience staying in a Shanty within the safe environment of a private game reserve. This is the only Shanty Town in the world equipped with under-floor heating and wireless internet access!” It is difficult to resist ridiculing such offensive enthusiasm for an overnight descent into poverty. Gizmodo, for instance, mocked the resort’s effort to “recreate the joys of slum living without the nuisances of crime, disease, or poor sanitation”; Atlas Obscura concluded that “Unlike the atmosphere of struggle and danger that exists for the millions of people living in real South African shanty towns, Emoya’s Shanty Town attempts to foster a warm vibe of back-to-basics community,” which “may be the nadir of class tourism, a place where people can pay more to pretend to have less”; and Stephen Colbert dubbed the odd resort “glamour slumming.” Read the rest of this entry
Since her introduction in 1959, Barbie has been greeted by exceptionally zealous defenses as well as fevered attacks on the doll’s representation of femininity, sexuality, and consumption. Barbie is often reduced to monolithic symbolism: e.g., Barbie as hypersexualized breasty flame; ditzy hedonist; or a model that “girls can do anything.” Such simplifications tell us very little about why the doll has been so compelling to over a half-century of consumers, and Mattel has often remained studiously separated from discussions about Barbie and sexuality; instead, Mattel suggests that Barbie is a sort of “blank slate” onto which children project their unfettered imaginations.
This week, though, Barbie appears in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue alongside flesh-and-blood models, an appearance that comes nearly simultaneous with Mattel’s ads that proclaim that Barbie is “unapologetic.” The embrace of Barbie’s inescapable sexuality and the brazen pronouncement that she is not apologetic is an interesting shift in Barbie’s social meanings that reflects Mattel’s willingness to celebrate Barbie’s idealized beauty and attack the doll’s critics. Read the rest of this entry