Tucked away at the end of a suburban street in western Henrico County, Virginia, is a small cemetery, an intriguing piece of local history: a 2-acre field of graves, decorated with an occasional bouquet of flowers and headstones bearing the names of those interred at their final earthly resting place: Gigi and Boots, Sweet Pea, Rusty and Bonnie Boops, Skippy, Kippy and Tippy, Peanut and Snoopy and Taffy Tu-Tu.
Among many, many others.
Thousands of family pets have been buried at Pet Memorial Park since it was founded, amid controversy, going on 90 years ago. The cemetery has changed hands over the years and has never been a profitable business, but even as the neighborhood has developed around this once-rural plot of land, the cemetery has held steadfast to its mission: provide a place for people to honor their pets in the manner they wish.
“That’s the worst feeling in the world when you lose your pet,” said Marsha Rodgers, who, along with her husband, Allen, acquired Pet Memorial Parks LLC in 2016. “Not everybody wants to cremate their pet. It gives them another option. Being able to do this brings them a little bit of comfort, makes them feel a little more at peace. That’s why I do it.”
She also does it because she is familiar with the feeling of loss. Since 2009, she and her husband had stopped by the cemetery weekly to visit the grave of their late Shih Tzu, Snowball. During one visit, they learned the cemetery owner was retiring and looking for a new owner. Contact was made, a deal was struck and the Rodgerses eagerly took over in 2016, not knowing exactly what they were getting into, but knowing this:
“I didn’t want to lose it,” she said of the cemetery.
The cemetery is half a mile north of Three Chopt Road, behind Tuckahoe Middle School. When the cemetery was established in 1934, this part of the county was country. There were few houses, and the road system was nothing like today. Newspaper clippings from the 1930s refer to the cemetery’s location as “Monument Avenue extended.”
The cemetery was started by a Richmond veterinarian, Hansford H. Rowe, who had clients who wanted a place to bury their pets, recalled his daughter, Jane Rowe List, now 95. She also recalled there was opposition to the cemetery by nearby landowners.
In June 1935, a story about the fight over the cemetery was on the front page of The Times-Dispatch (next to a piece on the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, who had been convicted of the abduction and murder of the 20-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh, a case known then as “The Crime of the Century”).
Eventually, the cemetery proceeded, and List remembers making trips there as a child, sometimes taking the family ponies in a trailer. They would ride over to nearby Ridge Elementary School, which had been constructed in 1930.
The Rowe family lived on Brookland Park Boulevard in the Barton Heights area of the city — there were five Rowe siblings, including Dan, who died in December and for 50 years was one of Richmond’s “Legendary Santas” — and had a veritable menagerie at the home.
One of their more well-known pets was Bo-Bo, a friendly goat who roamed the ravine next to the family’s home and became a neighborhood favorite. When Bo-Bo died in January 1938, his death and the outpouring of sadness and affection from local residents was featured in a front-page story in the RTD. The next day, a photo of the Rowe kids at the service at Pet Memorial Park was on Page 3 of the newspaper.
Dogs and cats became the primary residents of the cemetery, as you might expect, but along with Bo-Bo there are ducks and rabbits, and List recalls even a chimpanzee being buried there.
One of the most famous animals resting here is the horse Lady Wonder, who died in 1957 after becoming famous for her purported psychic abilities, as well as her math and spelling skills. (The most prominent grave today belongs to Tommie, a pit bull who was tied to a fence and set on fire and whose death in 2019 prompted a public outcry.)
List remembers hearing stories in the early days of the cemetery that Richmond writer Ellen Glasgow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, was a frequent visitor to Pet Memorial Park, where she sat on a bench near the graves of her dogs. Funerals were common occurrences at the cemetery.
“I remember one time this couple was out there and the woman was just weeping and weeping, and her husband was standing there looking at the grave,” List said. “The woman said, ‘I loved that dog more than anything on this earth,’ and the poor husband is standing there.”
Between 1,500 and 2,000 pets had been buried at the cemetery by the early 1950s, according to a 1953 RTD article. (In a 1977 report, the number had grown to 3,500.)
Hansford Rowe died in 1945, and his widow, Isabelle, with the help of family, operated the cemetery until her death in 1972. The Richmond SPCA took over the cemetery and later turned it over to Emerson Hughes, a member of the SPCA board and co-founder of Holiday Barn Pet Resorts along with his wife, Kathy. Hughes said he felt obliged to help out the SPCA, which really wasn’t in business to run a cemetery; for him, it was more of a community service than a business venture.
Burials fell off during his period of ownership — probably no more than 100, for the better part of two decades, he said — and upkeep was his main mission. Cash flow from those burials was enough to keep the grass mowed — and to keep the place open for those who count on it most.
“This is not a tongue-in-cheek enterprise,” Hughes said, meaning while some might roll their eyes at the notion of a cemetery for pets, there is no more solemn duty than to be entrusted with the remains of someone’s beloved friend.
John Patykula, assistant chair for the VCU Department of Music, learned of the cemetery through musical connections with the Hugheses, so when his family cat, Smokey, died at the age of 18 he knew what he wanted to do, and he made arrangements for burial at Pet Memorial Park.
“I wanted my cat to have a nice resting spot,” he said. “I don’t have any kids, so I can afford to do that.”
In the years since, he has buried two more cats that adopted him. He visits their graves often, usually while running weekend errands.
“They’re like children to us,” he said, “and I like to give them a proper burial.”
Marsha Rodgers likes to say she didn’t go looking to own a pet cemetery, it just sort of happened. Patykula, whom she met on one of her visits to the cemetery, told her about Hughes wanting to find another owner. In transferring ownership to her, Hughes filled her in on the finer points of owning the place. Rodgers and her husband have spent the past few years enlisting the help of like-minded volunteers wanting to clean up the overgrown areas of the cemetery.
A couple of weeks ago, she met List and her daughters, giving Rodgers an even fuller appreciation of the history and scope of the cemetery.
“I haven’t gone looking for any of it,” she said. “It just sort of found its way to me.”
Burials have been few since she took over, and she’d like to get the word out that Pet Memorial Park is still in business. It is one of only two pet cemeteries in the immediate Richmond area. The other is Faithful Friends Pet Cemetery, which is part of Washington Memorial Park Cemetery in Sandston. Nationally, there are an estimated 750 pet cemeteries, according to the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories.
Rodgers said the one-time fee depends on the size of the animal and starts at $890, which includes transport, casket, burial and marker.
Occasional vandalism has been a problem throughout the history of the cemetery, and in 2017 almost 100 headstones were knocked over during one incident. (The Rodgerses have since installed security cameras.) Dumping also has been an occasional issue among thick trees along the edge of the property, as they’ve found mattresses, car batteries and even a toilet.
Rodgers is grateful for those who attend regular cleanup days to help keep the place tidy, which is a challenge as she and her husband live in Chesterfield County and have full-time day jobs. (She works for an office furniture dealership, and he is in apartment maintenance.)
“We don’t make any money,” she said of the cemetery, though they wouldn’t mind turning a profit. Her long-term dream is to develop an indoor dog park (at another site), but that’s a ways off.
Meantime, she said, “We do what we can.”