Saturday, August 27, 2011

Graveyard dogs

The guardian dog at Last Chance Cemetery, some 20 miles southwest of Chariton in Union Township.

The hoopla surrounding Hawkeye, pet of the late U.S. Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson, grows weirder, reinforcing the notion that many people are just plain nuts. Hawkeye now has his own Facebook page and former University of Iowa Hawkeye football player Jon Lazar grabbed some attention yesterday by proposing that the dog lead the team onto the field at the start of a game this fall. “I think everyone would be crying in the stands,” Lazar told The Register.

It’s all beginning to seem exploitive and perhaps disrespectful toward the memories of other U.S. troops who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, but didn’t own appealing pets. Tumilson’s family and friends have had nothing to do with initiating this silliness, preoccupied still I would guess by grief.

But dogs have a long history as “man’s best friend,” reflected in interesting ways. I’m always bemused when dogs are mentioned as survivors in obituaries. I believe the memorial park on Ottumwa’s northeast side has a pet section. And some undertakers offer services for pets --- and grief counseling.

I’m not entirely an insensitive clod, however, and remember crying a little when my childhood pet, Skippy, met an accidental death (we buried him along the fence line on a hill with a view). My dad used to call home, when on vacation, to check the status of his beloved Blackie, and buried that pet, when it died of old age, where it fell asleep the last time --- the dog’s favorite place in the sun just south of the house.

And now and then this connection between human and canine friends is reflected in cemeteries.

I drove out to Last Chance yesterday afternoon in part to take a photo of the canine guardian there. This concrete dog has been in place as long as I can remember, but for the life of me I can’t remember its story. I’ll check later with my cousin, the alternate Frank. He may remember.

The dog sits facing south at the south end of a lot occupied among others by my distant cousin, Laura Belle (Berg) Exley, who died in the 1940s, and two of her infant children. These graves were not marked for a number of years and perhaps this dog was placed as a tombstone, although it has no inscription.

Cliff Brewer and I were playing a round of the old Lucas County game, let’s-figure-out-how-we’re-almost-related, the other day (his aunt generations removed, Gay Webb, was the wife of my uncle generations removed, Owen Miller the first), when he happened to mention a brother of his who died in infancy. The baby was buried at Strong, sometimes aka Belinda, Cemetery --- but there was no money to buy a tombstone. So his dad found a field stone that seemed to him to be shaped like a dog and moved it to the cemetery to mark the burial place. As years passed, someone removed the stone and so the grave now is lost.


And my friend Dianne pointed out a year or two ago these side-by-side tombstones in the Chariton Cemetery that commemorate, in spirit at least, several beloved pets.

These stones are located east of the cemetery's most easterly drive, towards the south end of the original ceemtery.


Southern Iowa’s best known cemetery dog probably is the sculpted greyhound located on the Thomas J. Nash lot in Ottumwa’s big city cemetery. It was vandalized during 2004, then restored and put back into place. This is a city of Ottumwa photo of it.

There are all sorts of stories about this dog’s origin, although it may guard the grave of Nash’s four-year-old grandson, George. Here’s a link to a page that offers more information about this cemetery dog.

I really like all of this doggy symbolism; nothing at all the matter with any of it. Just trying to say, sort of, that dogs are wonderful  in their own way, and deserving of honor for it, entirely without the need to be humanized. When we start attributing humanity to them, or substituing doggy love for people love, it gets a little spooky. 

1 comment:

Ken said...

Skippy happened to be the name of the first family pet I can remember. I never really bonded with any of the later ones. Like you, I guess I'm a "dog liker" (not "dog lover").