Some of our first experiences with death come when we lose a childhood pet. And, as Lee Cowan shows us, how we remember our pets can say a lot about who we are as humans.
This story was originally broadcast on April 24, 2014.
It's a sun-kissed morning in the foothills above California's Napa Valley.
Wine, of course, is what this area's known for. But on these five acres, serenaded by babbling waters, shaded by oaks and surrounded by old stone walls, there isn't a grape in sight.
The reason for this tranquil place is different -- the best hint is the dog and the cat right on the front gate.
"I think when she first died, I came up here two weeks straight, every day," said Helen Chulik.
Chulik's dog, Fancy, chased her last ball more than 10 years ago now. But Helen (and her new best friend, Jackson) still come to visit Fancy almost every week: "Here we go. Sit, Jackson. Okay, gotta change these flowers."
Chulik said of Fancy, "She really filled a niche, I guess, that I needed. And I think I might have shed a tear here, talking about it."
That happens a lot here at the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, the final resting place for all manner of pets, from Snowflake the cat, to Smokey the dog, to Bandit the ferret, and Chloe the rabbit -- some 12,000 pets in all, who asked little in return for their loyalty.
"They'll love you no matter what you look like, or how old you are," said Chulik. "They accept you for what you are."
Dan Harberts owns the park, and each day is reminded of the unshakable bond between animals and the people they leave behind.
"People bury people because they have to," said Cowan, "but they tend to bury pets because they want to."
"It's so true," said Harberts. "You're doing it from pure love, and that's the highest form that we can pay tribute to, as far as our pets go."
His father, Cal, started Bubbling Well some 43 years ago, back when the idea of a pet cemetery raised more than a few eyebrows.
"My father called me up and he said, 'Son, I've got an idea for a business.' And I said, 'Really, Dad? What's that?' And he said, 'I'm going to start a pet cemetery.' And I said, 'Ah, Dad, I don't know that that's the best idea.'"
Because why? "Well, in those days, it was a joke, and it was taken as such," said Harberts.
It was such a unique idea that filmmaker Errol Morris decided to make a documentary about it, called "Gates of Heaven," that became a cult classic.
Featured in the film was Dan's father, Cal; and Dan, back in his 20s, painfully explaining the obvious:
"We have to make sure that the hole is going to fit the size of the casket because you don't want to make it too large because you're going to waste space, and you don't want to make it too small because you can't get the thing in there."
Cowan asked, "Did you get some notoriety from it?"
"Oh yeah, oh yeah," said Harberts.
"Not particularly wanted?"
"Do we really want to talk about that?" he laughed.
Dan has changed -- and so has the park. But the sentiment behind his dad's dream remains the same.
"I don't know if I'm ever going to retire," he said. "What we do here, I think, is very important, and I see myself doing this probably for the rest of my life."
Burials here start around $800. There are an estimate 750 pet cemeteries nationwide, and in many (like here), the graves are attended to with a care that's sometimes not even afforded human cemeteries.
"There's a dignity in it," said Cowan.
"A dignity, to be sure, yeah, yeah," said Harberts.
He pauses to think about his own dog, Bu, whose ashes are here as well.
And he thinks of the countless people he's met over the years, grieving a loss, and asking the same question many pet owners do: Just where do they go when they're gone?
What most will agree is that a pet's devotion comes from its spirit, not its body, and in that -- for Helen Chulik, at least -- there is a reason to believe.
"We'll get together," she told Cowan. "If there's a heaven, our pets will be with us, there's no doubt."
For more info:
- Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, Napa, Calif.
- International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories
- "Gates of Heaven" by Errol Morris (MGM)