Eternal Restlessness Over Md. Pet Cemetery

About 22,000 animals are buried at Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park in Elkridge.
About 22,000 animals are buried at Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park in Elkridge. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The roster of the deceased at Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park in Howard County reads like a who's who of Washington area pets: Mary Ann, a beloved elephant from the Baltimore Zoo. Willie II, a black Labrador retriever owned by Comptroller (and former governor) William Donald Schaefer. Tiny B.B., a canine mascot for the Washington Bullets.

But what was once notable as a pioneering pet cemetery -- the first in the nation to allow people and their pets to be buried side by side -- has devolved over the past decade into a dilapidated eyesore, plagued by allegations of theft and persistent speculation that the burial ground will soon be turned into a strip mall. The current owner won't comment on any plans.

At Bonheur, unkempt grass is knee-high. Rusty beer cans and a tire litter the grounds. A few weeks ago, a large oak tree fell onto the grave of Loki, a Prince George's County police dog, but no one has moved it.

"This is a sin before the Lord," said Joyce Williams, 65, who cried as she walked between sunken graves filled with water and trash to reach the place where Wee Lady Lexie, her 6-year-old Yorkshire terrier, is buried in a tiny pink coffin. "How can someone care more about dollar bills than respecting the dead?"

The decline of Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park highlights the precarious existence of pet cemeteries, which are unregulated in most states, and their increasing transformation into easy targets for developers in the Washington region and across the nation.

"The problem is that the property is worth just too darn much," said Robin L. Lauver, president of the National Association of Pet Funeral Directors. "Now you have hundreds of these of pet cemeteries that can be sold off as building lots. And there are no laws to stop it."

Virginia is one of the few states that has tight restrictions on pet cemeteries. Prompted by outrage in the 1990s over plans to build a shopping center atop Evergreen Pet Cemetery near Richmond, the General Assembly required owners of pet cemeteries to promise that they will use the land for no other purpose and put $12,000 into a perpetual care fund. Maryland and the District have no such laws.

Named after a 19th-century animal painter, Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park was founded in 1935 in Elkridge as one of the world's first pet cemeteries. Its decision in 1979 to allow owners to be buried next to their pets made national headlines.

The 22,000 animals buried there include obscure goldfish and parakeets as well as more famous animals like Wiggles (a 29-year-old champion horse) and Corp. Rex Ahlbin (a World War II combat dog who died during fighting at Guadalcanal).

At least 20 Homo sapiens are also buried there, according to former manager Marilyn L. Phillips. One of those, U.S. Army Pfc. Melvin D. Ward, killed himself by jumping out of an airplane without a parachute because he was despondent over the death of his 7-year-old dog, Moo, she said. They are buried next to each other.

But the celebrated cemetery fell into disrepair in the 1990s under the ownership of William A. Green. Grieving pet owners complained that Green would not deliver the funeral services for which they had paid hundreds of dollars.

Six days after Green gave a Baltimore couple the ashes of what were supposed to be their dogs Tessa and Suzy, police discovered their uncremated bodies in a cemetery shed, according to court documents.

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