Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Necropolis Now

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Just south of San Francisco there's a town where the dead far outnumber the living. It's called Colma, and it's a necropolis -- isn't it great that such an archaic word can have a modern application? -- of about 1,600 people and more than 1.5 million corpses.

There are at least 18 cemeteries in Colma, and they serve virtually every denomination. There's a Greek Orthodox cemetery, several Chinese cemeteries, a Jewish cemetery, a Korean cemetery, and several military cemeteries where the lines of slim white markers march off endlessly into the distance. But to me the most interesting graveyard in Colma isn't for people at all. Butted up against a crowded Chinese cemetery, it's called Pet's Rest (the copywriter in me would prefer Pets' Rest), and it's reserved exclusively for animals who are lovingly immortalized by their owners. 

I find this type of graveyard interesting because of the complex span of human emotions it showcases. First of all, a tombstone is a challenging messaging vehicle. It has to communicate the significance of the person (or pet) who lies beneath, especially since everyone and everything eventually dies. It has to approximate some sense of loss and longing. And, usually, it gives testimony to the mourner's religious beliefs -- most often the hope that, through the benevolence of whatever belief system, the loved one and the one left behind will one day be reunited. 

It's both charming and a little frightening that so many people not only insist on believing in an afterlife, but also shape that belief to include the elements that give them added comfort. Like, for example, the hope that they will one day be reunited with their bunnies. I have no doubt at all that Buttercup and Nutmeg were exceptional rabbits; in fact, Buttercup managed to create an indelible impact on the Miles family in just two years. That's one impressive bunny rabbit.

But it's also fascinating that humans are not only able to maintain their religious faith, but somehow manage to project it onto their pets. Was Sheebah actually Jewish? I can't help seeing a rather intellectual house cat with a yarmelke and side curls. And am I wrong, or don't most Jews not believe in the concept of Heaven? Again, this cat must have been truly exceptional for the Schers to have bent the rules for her. But they thought enough of her to purchase and inscribe a large and expensive granite memorial, etched with not one but two Stars of David. Perhaps the fact that Sheebah went to her reward on Yom Kippur was enough to convince them of her orthodox status.

Now, as a long-time advertising marketer, I'm a big believer in customer service, which usually, whether you're an IT consultant or an insurance salesman, consists of simply protecting the customer from himself. Stone is a pretty unforgiving medium, so I would think that avoiding mistakes would be a huge part of the service stone masons and funeral memorial personnel provide. That's why I'm struggling with how this stone ever saw the light of day, since of course that "your" should be "you're." Poor little Sunshine Reimonenq, destined to an eternity of well-meaning but inexpertly applied homage.

These memorials can be incredibly evocative, though. Who wouldn't want to have known Stoney, who probably tripped over his own ears and had a deafening bark? I want to know what he did that was particularly funny. For 16 years he obviously brought a lot of quality to the lives of his family, who thought so much of him they didn't even bother to include their own names in his permanent eulogy. And the paw print design motif seems especially appropriate for this particular dog. You look at this stone and you feel the family's pain at Stoney's loss, and maybe begin to understand why they hope to see him again in the afterlife.

Pet's Rest is full of other hints about the legacy of these great, fondly remembered pets. It's impossible to tell if Puddles was a dog or a cat or a wombat, but he plied his trade with his owners for seven whole years. The orange placed on his grave suggests his owners were Chinese or Thai (I checked to make sure there wasn't an orange tree on the grounds), and when you consider that he's been dead and gone for 26 years it makes you wonder about the devotion he inspired. I imagine an elderly Chinese man slipping on his windbreaker and calling out to his wife, "Honey, I'm just going to run down and put an orange on Puddles' grave." That must have been one fine wombat. 

It's hard enough to imagine what the alien civilizations who eventually come across the smoking ruins of our world will think about our endless obsession with eternity. But perhaps when they see the devotion and care we gave to the animals that gave us warmth and comfort, they'll consider us in a slightly more positive light than as the creatures who so stupidly destroyed their own planet.


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