A first time visitor might think that this blog should be re-titled, “Cemetery Scribblings” after seeing this post. A second sketch of a cemetery and a connection to the turbulent year, 1978. What brought me to this cemetery in Napa, was a 1978 film which the late film critic Roger Ebert hailed as a “masterpiece” and placed it on his list of the top ten films of all time. The film is Errol Morris’ first feature “Gates of Heaven”. This documentary follows the plight of two Californian pet cemeteries, one fails and is forced to close and the other survived (taking the 450 pets buried in from the first cemetery) and is still open to this day, run by the same family.
Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park is in the foothills of Napa Valley and commands a view of this world famous wine region. It has grown since it’s screen debut but the twin lion-clad stone columns and flag pole remains much the same as in 1978.
(A still from the final shot of “Gates of Heaven”.)
It is easy to be dismissive of pet owners who treat their dogs and cats better than they treat fellow human beings. When I was a child our three dogs were simply pets that did not get dressed up in sweaters or have portraits painted of them which were proudly displayed above our mantelpiece because our dogs were just dogs, the family pet.
As I walked among the graves, reading the many inscriptions, I was touched by the connections between pet and owner. It was clear that these animals played a large part in their owner’s lives, enriching it and giving meaning to it. This bond of trust and friendship is best described in “Gates of Heaven” by Mac, the owner of the now defunct Foothill Pet Cemetery in Los Altos:
People like people because they like one another. And people don’t trust one another thoroughly like an animal and a human being. I can know you very well. But when I turn my back, I don’t know you. Not truly. But my little dog, I can turn my back on my little dog and I know he’s back there. He’s my little friend. He’s not gonna jump on me or bite me or anything like that. But human beings cannot be this way.
Morris’ film is, on the surface, a documentary about two pet cemeteries but it is really about something much deeper. It is one of those films that can be viewed over and over again. As Ebert writes, “this 85-minute film about pet cemeteries has given me more to think about over the past 20 years than most of the other films I’ve seen.” Now that’s really saying something!
As I stroll through the Park reading the inscriptions: “I Love you Princess”, “My Best Friend”, and “God is Love-Backward It’s Dog”, I share this moment with the 12,500 pets buried here and the geriatric emu that hobbles around on the hill. This visit has given me much to think about and reflect on. Love and loss, hope and redemption, and the unbreakable tie we have with animals and the natural world.
The geriatric emu hobbling along with Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park and Napa Valley in the background.