PARIS -- It shouldn't happen to a dog.
Not in this city, which so reveres and memorializes the dear departed. Not where Napoleon's tomb is a sacred schoolboy's monument. Not where the poet Baudelaire is lain in fresh flowers, nor where rock star Jim Morrison's grave draws legions of graffiti-scrawling admirers. But on Aug. 31, at 8 p.m., Paris' celebrated Cimetie`re des Chiens (et Autres Animaux Exotiques) will close its gates. After 88 years.
After Monday, you won't be able to visit Rin Tin Tin.
The German (shepherd) silent film star (pronounced "Ran Tan Tan" in French) is easily the most celebrated "loved one" sleeping in the dog cemetery here. Yet his elegantly understated black onyx tombstone, with its gold-leafed legend ("the greatest cinema star"), is dwarfed by hundreds of other more elaborate and fanciful memorials crowding the groved riverside site. Each elegizes one of 3,000 pets reposing here (2,000 of man's best friends lying peacefully beside 1,000 assorted cats, parakeets, birds, rabbits, deer, monkeys, tortoises, bears, horses and a lion named Pezou).
Hundreds of imaginative sculptures stretch from the belle e'poque and prewar schools to commemorate the departed with appropriate tombstones, bas-relief, carvings, marble arches, memorial stairways, stone trees and, sadly, the empty granite dog house of Fanny Boy. Thousands of inscriptions recall everlasting devotion to Boby, or attest to the fidelity of Bijou, or detail the more evocative, sanguine emotions and deeds.
Like the fireman's Dalmatian friend who best loved fetching slippers ("Brother Bill, felled by accident in Paris, 1927"). Or "Wu Lie of Peking, who passed slowly over twelve years (1896-1908) chagrined by the loss of her mistress." All eternally resident in a suburban idyll high above the banks of the Seine. Finally, relieved in death from "a dog's life." Rewardedly shielded by cypress grove and ivy from further transgressions. Or so their bereaved masters believed.
After several years of barked warnings, cemetery operators, declaring it was no longer profitable to continue, ceased interments in June. Further, the anonymous syndicate expressed its intention to close the property altogether in September.
"It's sad," Monsieur C. DuPortal, the private society's on-site resident manager, explains, "but there was not money to persevere." Interest, he says, was slim, with only 170 new plottings within recent years. And each year, fewer family members came on weekends to lay flowers or tend sites with one of the dozen watering cans lining the entrance gate. He says attendance among visitors, each paying 12 francs ($2) to roam the 25-acre idyll, inspecting weathered monument gardens, had slowed to a trickle.
"I'm not happy," he says, leading a visitor to his favorite memorial among thousands. "I regret not being able to continue." After 28 years, he says (beside an enormous pedestaled granite Victorian canopy shielding a relief of the spaniel Emma), he'll have to find some new form of employment. He, too, is victim of increased costs, land values and taxes in a booming northeast Parisian suburb.
But who's to rescue Rin Tin Tin, the canine star discovered in a World War I trench?
Alarmed by the situation, Parisians (who annually crowd the "curiosite'" each Nov. 1, the Day of the Dead, a traditional European holiday) created a small dogfight, effectively resulting in a last-minute heaven-sent reprieve. Hastily assigning it a "second-class" designation, the minister of equipment, transportation and environment inscribed the glade on the nation's roll of monuments and historic places, preventing disturbance of its statuary and grounds.
Proceedings are underway for suburban Asnie`res-sur-Seine to assume ownership through lengthy court procedures, by which the village will appropriate the site at a magistrate-determined price.
"It's a unique curiosity, the oldest pet cemetery in Paris," says a spokeswoman for the village's mayor. "It will be reopened in a year, perhaps less. As soon as possible."
For now, however, resting undisturbed, and untroubled, Barry is safe behind the cemetery's turn-of-the-century iron and stone gates.
Barry, the great St. Bernard who rescued 40 avalanche victims before the 41st felled him. Whose heroic Alpine form (nobly portrayed with a life-size waif astride him) guard-dogs the entrance courtyard from atop a 14-foot-high monument. Safe, too, is the white horse Gibroulle, whose 25-year devoted service inspired Marguerite Durand to create the cemetery.
And at peace also, at last it seems, is Rin Tin Tin.