SILVER SPRING – Except for the red fire hydrants and plastic poodles, the cemetery nestled inconspicuously on the corner of Aspen Hill Road and Georgia Avenue looks much like any other.
But a closer look shows that the Aspin Hill Pet Memorial and Animal Sanctuary is like no other.
The pet cemetery, run by the Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary, is the final resting place for more than 5,000 animals and 30 humans. Seven of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s dogs are buried here, as is Petey, the white dog with the black eye from the “Our Gang” movie shorts.
“No one has ever asked to bury something here that we said no to,” said caretaker Marjorie Hewitt. “We have 14 horses buried here, about five monkeys, ferrets, guinea pigs, rats, mice, parakeets, all kinds of birds.
“One woman whose goldfish died saved it in a plastic bag in her freezer until her dog died, and then buried it here, too,” Hewitt said.
Beloved pets are not the only animals honored at Aspin Hill. The cemetery, which was run by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals until 1996, is also a shrine of sorts to animals that lost their hides for a fur coat or were killed in laboratory experiments.
One gravesite is actually holds about a half-dozen fur coats, said James Thompson, the cemetery’s gravedigger since 1968. Elsewhere, a 6-inch-high granite mouse marks a grave dedicated to millions of lab rats, over a bronze marker that reads: “To Emily, Annie, Jane and Rue and the millions of rats used in medical experimentation and product testing.”
“It is quirky,” Diane Pearce, executive director of the Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary. Quirky enough to be mentioned on Internet websites for famous pet graves and wacky places to stop while vacationing in Maryland.
“We do get people who stop by who have seen us on the Internet and people will ask us, ‘Where’s Petey’s grave?'” said Hewitt.
But sanctuary workers said theirs is a serious business.
Cemetery plots, sold only in doubles and triples, start at $700 for two plots and are usually staked out with care by the owners.
“Once I spent 10 minutes with a woman who was deciding how she wanted her dog to be in the casket to decide what his view would be. She stood there and faced each direction,” Hewitt said. “Some people want to know whether a dog or cat would be laying next to it.”
Funeral services vary from cremations and simple, closed-casket services to burials in plush, white cloth-covered caskets with Hewitt or a clergy member saying a few special words.
One family videotaped a recent funeral and others often “leave little bits of food … or they’ll put a collar or toy inside. We’ll design the ceremony however the family wants, we’re very informal most of the time,” Hewitt said.
Grave markers vary from handmade headstones and shrines to a large, marble mausoleum for a Boston Terrier, a chiseled stone bust of a greyhound and a 6- foot tombstone with sculptures of a cat on either side. Many gravestones have photos of the pets, and sometimes their owners.
“A lot of people just put their own things on the graves like toys or a statue. We don’t mind,” said Thompson, the cemetery’s groundskeeper and gravedigger for more than 30 years.
The 7.79-acre site includes a Tudor home that is a registered Montgomery County historic site. It was originally owned by the Birney family, who bred show dogs there at a highly regarded kennel that they named for Aspin Hill Kennels in England.
The Birneys buried their dogs on their property and let friends bury pets there, too. Soon, others were asking to bury pets on the property. While it actually began operating as a pet cemetery in 1921, Hewitt said there are gravestones from 1917.
There are now more than 5,000 animals buried at the site.
“We also have 30 humans buried here,” said Hewitt. “A lot want to be buried with their pets and if they don’t have any family, that is often their choice. Families will come out with ashes of their family member and scatter them over their pet.”
Not all family members are as thrilled about taking a loved one or a loved pet to the sanctuary, Hewitt said.
“Some do it for their spouse, when one needs closure and the rest of the family will just roll their eyes,” she said. “Most are very sincere.”
But those who cherish their pets so much in life need to provide for them in death, she said. For them, a backyard burial just will not do.
“These pets are like family members,” said Hewitt. “I think a lot of people bury here because this place is going to be here and you can visit, but are you going to be living in your house 20 years from now?”