Cats make themselves at home in graveyards for a variety of reasons, both practical and — maybe — supernatural
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
During a recent stroll through La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I spied one of the resting ground’s residents. Not a ghost or zombie, but clearly a permanent resident: a cat curled up in front of one of the mausoleums.
What is it about cats and cemeteries? Cats have made homes in them around the world. Cimetiere des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques (otherwise known as the Paris pet cemetery) isn’t just a resting place for deceased pets. Feral cats wend their way through tombstones or nap inside crypts, one of which has little cat-shaped entrances (or are they exits for kitty ghosts?). Inside a small building, living cats can find shelter and food, and water flows from a fountain.
At Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, feral cats snooze among the stars — movie stars, that is — enjoying food, water and shelter provided by cemetery management.
Yanaka Cemetery in Tokyo is located in an area known as “cat town.” Community cats greet cemetery visitors and are cared for by volunteers.
Cats hang out at the graves of rock star Jim Morrison and French writer Colette — a noted cat lover — as well as at many other burial spots in Paris’ Pere Lachaise. They even have their own Facebook page, the Cats of Pere Lachaise.
Rome’s Non-Catholic Cemetery, also known as the Protestant Cemetery, has a managed colony of feral and stray cats. Perhaps they’re admirers of one of the cemetery’s other residents, English Romantic poet John Keats, who penned the sonnet “To Mrs. Reynolds’ Cat.”
Your own local cemeteries likely house a clowder of cats. When you think about it, cemeteries have a lot of appeal for felines: They’re quiet, with little traffic, and offer shelter from the elements. Tombs make a nice vantage point — it’s easy to see the approach of other animals or humans from the top of one — or serve as a launchpad into a tree. Grassy lawns or stone markers warmed by the sun are a pleasant place to catnap. If meals aren’t provided by volunteers, mice, squirrels and rabbits probably provide good hunting. There’s little risk from dogs or other predators, and plenty of hiding places if necessary.
“Cemeteries are quiet, and the cats are under no threat there,” says Luz Damron, author of the upcoming memoir “The Cat Lady of Baltimore,” the story of her struggles to help keep stray cats safe.
Veterinary behaviorist Wailani Sung, at San Francisco SPCA, agrees. “I would suspect it is due to lower risks from predators and disturbance from human population,” she says. “Most cemeteries are quiet and fenced off, so it is similar to being in a rural setting amid an urban environment.”
And who knows? Cats may feel at home in cemeteries because of their long association with transformation and the afterlife. In Finnish mythology, cats escorted the souls of the dead to the underworld. Celtic mythology has cats guarding the gates to the otherworld. Babylonians believed a benevolent cat accompanied the souls of priests to the afterlife. A Greek myth tells of a servant bold enough to trick the goddess Hera. She was punished by being turned into a cat and sent to the underworld to serve Hecate, goddess of restless spirits and entranceways. In Thailand, it was said that the souls of kings who died passed into the body of a Siamese cat so that the former king could appear at the coronation of his successor.
Whether cemetery cats are communing with the spirits, exercising their role as spirit guides, or simply enjoying the good life in surroundings populated by the dead, they are a living reminder of the millennia-old bond between cats and humans — even beyond the veil.