The peculiar cat funerals in the Victorian era was one of those practices among a few, that shows how Victorians felt about death and how they began to see cats in a different light. In a period of history where animals had no rights, in the Victorian era, they became more important.
As I previously wrote in one of my articles, cats became popular again after centuries of tortures. Mostly, thanks to Queen Victoria and her love for cats and animals in general. During her long reign, she profoundly influenced the society in every aspect. And when her husband died in 1861, she mourned her departed husband till the end of her days and set the tone for a new tradition, a curious reverence for death never seen before combined with the love for cats among wealthy people, resulted in a reverence for their cats in life and death. As a consequence, cat funerals became a trend in the 19th century.
The cat was being treated more like a companion and not like an object. The pet was usually buried in pet cemeteries where headstones with simple inscriptions were erected. The Christian burial dedicated to the Victorian cat brought controversy in the society above all in very traditional Christians who found offensive to give a pet a formal burial.
Exeter Flying Post – Saturday 10 March 1894
A CAT’S FUNERAL. In certain circles in Kensington deep interest has been taken in the funeral of a cat belonging to a lady of distinction. A respectable undertaker was called in, and instructed to conduct the funeral ordinarily; the body was to be enclosed in a shell which would go inside a fine oak coffin. There were the usual wrappings, including a plate on which was inscribed the statement that “Paul” had for seventeen – years been the beloved and faithful cat of Miss -, who now mourned his loss in suitable terms. The coffin, with a lovely wreath on it, was displayed in the undertaker’s shop.Source: British Newspaper Archive
Hyde Park Pet Cemetery
It’s important to mention Hyde Park Pet Cemetery as it was probably the first pet cemetery in the UK. It opened in 1881 when the first dog, a Maltese named Cherry was buried in what now is called Hyde Park Secret Pet Cemetery. The poor dog died like many other dogs in Victorian times, after a horse carriage ran over him. His guardians were regular visitors to the park and the keeper of the Victoria Gate Lodge, Mr. Winbridge, offered to bury the dog in the Lodge’s garden. The cemetery mainly welcomed dogs as they were really loved and highly respected back in the 19th century. However, a few cats, birds, and monkeys were buried too. The cemetery closed its gates in 1903.
Cat ladies in the Victorian Era.
During the Victorian Era, unmarried women were often called spinsters, originating from the fact that women who were unmarried spun wool. It was used in a depreciative way by the society, but it is important to note that spinsterhood was for many a choice. Upper and middle-class women were deliberately making this choice as their ideas about love and marriage were very strong.
I honestly love to see how many single women in the 19th century decided to be no man’s property and decided to care for cats instead. They threatened patriarchy and they chose to spend their lives with a beloved cat and sometimes a parrot. In a society that wanted them to be married, they went against it and decided that it was better to have the company of a pet than a man. That’s probably why many cat funerals were held by single women.
A Victorian Spinster Who Loved Cats: Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti has been one of the most famous Victorian poetesses. She was the niece of William Polidori, Lord Byron’s physician and author of The Vampyre. She loved cats and she dedicated to her furry friend, a touching elegy that I repost here:
On the Death of a Cat
By Christina Rossetti
Who shall tell the lady’s grief
When her Cat was past relief?
Who shall number the hot tears
Shed o’er her, belov’d for years?
Who shall say the dark dismay
Which her dying caused that day?
Come, ye Muses, one and all,
Come obedient to my call;
Come and mourn with tuneful breath
Each one for a separate death;
And, while you in numbers sigh,
I will sing her elegy.
Of a noble race she came,
And Grimalkin was her name
Young and old fully many a mouse
Felt the prowess of her house;
Weak and strong fully many a rat
Cowered beneath her crushing pat;
And the birds around the place
Shrank from her too close embrace.
But one night, reft of her strength,
She lay down and died at length;
Lay a kitten by her side
In whose life the mother died.
Spare her line and lineage,
Guard her kitten’s tender age,
And that kitten’s name as wide
Shall be known as hers that died.
And whoever passes by
The poor grave where Puss doth lie,
Softly, softly let him tread,
Nor disturb her narrow bed.
To conclude, I want to add another poet’s poem dedicated to a cat. The author is Algernon Charles Swinburne. He joined the Pre-Raphaelite circle after meeting Christina Rossetti’s brothers. I repost here his poem:
To A Cat
Algernon Charles Swinburne
Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, love’s lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read.
All your wondrous wealth of hair,
Dark and fair,
Silken-shaggy, soft and bright
As the clouds and beams of night,
Pays my reverent hand’s caress
Back with friendlier gentleness.
Dogs may fawn on all and some
As they come;
You, a friend of loftier mind,
Answer friends alone in kind.
Just your foot upon my hand
Softly bids it understand.
Morning round this silent sweet
Sheds its wealth of gathering light,
Thrills the gradual clouds with might,
Changes woodland, orchard, heath,
Lawn, and garden there beneath.
Fair and dim they gleamed below:
Now they glow
Deep as even your sunbright eyes,
Fair as even the wakening skies.
Can it not or can it be
Now that you give thanks to see?
May not you rejoice as I,
Seeing the sky
Change to heaven revealed, and bid
Earth reveal the heaven it hid
All night long from stars and moon,
Now the sun sets all in tune?
What within you wakes with day
Who can say?
All too little may we tell,
Friends who like each other well,
What might haply, if we might,
Bid us read our lives aright.
Wild on woodland ways your sires
Flashed like fires:
Fair as flame and fierce and fleet
As with wings on wingless feet
Shone and sprang your mother, free,
Bright and brave as wind or sea.
Free and proud and glad as they,
Rests or roams their radiant child,
Vanquished not, but reconciled,
Free from curb of aught above
Save the lovely curb of love.
Love through dreams of souls divine
Fain would shine
Round a dawn whose light and song
Then should right our mutual wrong—
Speak, and seal the love-lit law
Sweet Assisi’s seer foresaw.
Dreams were theirs; yet haply may
Dawn a day
When such friends and fellows born,
Seeing our earth as fair at morn,
May for wiser love’s sake see
More of heaven’s deep heart than we.