In the 1989 Stephen King classic Pet Sematary, the Creed family’s cat, Church, gets hit by a car on the busy road in front of their new home. Rather than burying Church in the pet cemetery with the many other pets who lost their lives on the same road, Louis Creed decides to venture to the burial site just beyond. That’s when things start to get ugly.
We have our very own quaint resting place for beloved pets here in San Francisco, without all of the zombie cats.
Tiki, Hula Girl, Tagalong, Smokey, Bambi and Blondie, Dumbo, Koko, Pudin Dandridge, and Hollywood are some of the names inscribed across the grave markers dotting the half-acre pet cemetery in the Presidio. Bounded by a soiled white picket fence on McDowell Avenue, overlooking Crissy Field and the Golden Gate Bridge, the pet cemetery is the final resting place for over 400 beloved pets from all over the world.
“There are so many markers with these very sweet names and very personal messages from families. Often times, kids will have left messages to their pets and little sayings or nicknames they had for them,” says Christina Wallace, the Conservator and Senior Preservation Specialist at the Presidio Trust.
In 2007, Wallace surveyed and inventoried the cemetery. Today she continues to monitor its conservation and maintenance.
Many of the markers exemplify military life.
“Often times, you’ll see on their markers that they were from Germany. There is a lot from Germany and other places around the world where the army families were stationed,” says Wallace.
Unlike the uniform and pristine San Francisco National Cemetery up the road, the pet cemetery is a mish-mash of grave markers, haphazardly scattered, and a little overgrown. Over the years, maintenance has been supported by volunteers such as the Boy Scouts and most recently Swords to Plowshares. Currently, the cemetery is in a suspension mode and closed to the public until Caltrans completes construction of Doyle Drive above. Nonetheless, preservation of the park remains important.
“We treat it as a cultural site because of its significance and importance to the Presidio and also the history of the Presidio and the army families that lived here and buried their pets here,” says Wallace.
Local lore has it that the cemetery was originally a burial ground for 19th century cavalry or WWII guard dogs, but no one actually knows if that’s true. There is very little documentation of the history of the cemetery but several newspaper articles date it to 1952 and attribute its creation to Lieutenant General Joseph Swing. It’s believed that Lieutenant Swing felt the residence of the Presidio should have a place to bury their pets as was customary in other posts. At the time, the Presidio was home to over 2,000 military families and soldiers. It’s hard to know, but the pets might have helped people feel more at home.
“They had a lot of pets. Most of the markers here are for dogs, and I think the second most common marker are for cats. But there are also birds, and rabbits, and fish, and snakes, and all kinds of things. I love how they have exact dates for a fish – February 2008 to July 2009. It’s great!” Wallace says.
Just like a human cemetery, the pets’ grave markers range in size and formality. Some are simple, made of wood with painted inscriptions. Others are more elaborate: marble with engraved images.
“See I love this: our Dizzy bird dog, we loved her. I think those little statements they put on the markers are some of my favorite things. There’s one with the enamel image of Tippy, daddy little baby boy,” Wallace reads with a smile.
The cemetery was closed to new burials in 1963, but they still get requests. And sometimes, new markers just show up. “Oh yeah every time we come out here there’s a new one. They typically tend to bury towards the back so that it may go unnoticed,” says Wallace.
Wallace squats down and brushes a marble headstone to read the fading inscription: “It’s in memory of Margaret O’Brien, a native of Ireland. ‘Died February 28, 1889 age 52 years.’ I think it says, ‘May her soul rest in peace.’ I think someone just clearly put a memorial here for Margaret, who I don’t imagine was a pet.”
Although Margaret’s memorial is peculiar, it underscores our human desire to honor life, whether it’s another person or a furry friend.
Audio for this story available after 5pm.