Usually, people travel abroad (well, they did before 2020) to visit a beach, some architectural miracle, hear their favorite band, or watch a beloved sports team playing. Exploring foreign countries with a goal to visit pet cemeteries is not that common. Not common at all, I guess. But an amazing Lithuanian artist Asta Ostrovskaja has a different approach while building her creative and travel agenda. A painter and an art director dedicate time to her ongoing project Rex In Peace, capturing sensitive and odd moments of pet burial – a phenomenon full of sorrow, mourning, and a sense of the end.
How did you find yourself hanging around in pet cemeteries?
I was inspired to do this project after visiting a pet graveyard in Karoliniškės neighborhood, Vilnius, situated right next to the Vilnius TV tower. The first gravestone that I’ve noticed had the words Forgive me, Aras engraved on marble. I’ve been recalling this inscription in my mind, thinking how come a few words can be so powerful and emotional. After repeating and telling this story many times, I’ve decided to research the phenomenon of pet cemeteries wider.
What inspires you to dig deeper and continue this project – is it curiosity, creative ambition, or maybe sentiments, a wish to identify with the mourning owners of deceased animals?
I think it’s curiosity and a wish to analyze mourning and human-animal relations as a visual phenomenon. I used the documentation of pet cemeteries in my creative work for the first time when it became a part of my BA video installation. Later, I also used it while creating visual installations for the music band O’s concerts (Žygimantas Kudirka and Gediminas Žygus).
What’s the geography of the project?
I have visited pet graveyards in Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Russia, and the USA. Both official and the illegal ones.
Did you notice any similarities between pet cemeteries, or every each of them is quite unique?
There is a difference between official and illegal pet cemeteries. When I decided to visit a graveyard in Minsk for the second time, it was gone. I noticed posters informing people that the illegal pet cemeteries will be destroyed on the first visit, though.
But no matter if the cemeteries are illegal or not, I’ve met mourning people there, burning candles and fresh flowers left on the graves of deceased pets. And it’s the same whether you visit the first official pet cemetery in New York of hundred years or a little space just behind the fence of the human cemetery in Minsk, which became a pet cemetery and a common hanging out place for local teenagers too.
Are there any trends or a wish to impress others with graves people create for their pets? Or do pet owners choose more subtle and modest ways to mourn?
It depends on how a person understands and reflects mourning. Some people are fine with a little stone and a marker-written name of their pet on it. Others build real-size tombstones, resembling their dog, or engraving poems about their cat’s magnificent life in marble.
There are many gravestones people create using different household items: ceramic tiles, scales, bed support, or even glasses of beer. And also, the toys of their pets and collars often find a place in graveyards.
Maybe this phenomenon encourages people to gather, build communities for mourning pet-owners?
Usually, people mourn alone. Same as in human cemeteries, one usually mourns alone or with his family. Mourning communities are not common.
But virtual cemeteries exist too – some people choose various web services to make digital gravestones and a memorial for their pets online.
Do mourning pet-owners share their stories with you?
My initial idea was capturing portraits of pet owners visiting their pets’ graves and collecting stories. However, everybody I’ve spoken to refused to open up – it’s a very personal experience, a moment of mourning, which nobody wants to document.
One man whom I’ve met leaving some flowers on his dogs’ grave, started crying while speaking to me: the dog who was his best friend got poisoned two years ago by his ex-wife while the divorce process was going on.
Any countries on your mind for future creative explorations?
The goal is to visit as many as possible. I want to have a broad spectrum of different stories after finishing the project. This year I had a long-awaited trip to Japan on my agenda with a plan to document this phenomenon in a society with a very deep Buddhist tradition. But same as for anybody else, the pandemic made me postpone this plan.
Now I have Japan, China, and Ghana on my mind. Japan is interesting for me because of the Buddhist tradition I’ve mentioned earlier. China adopted many Western mourning and funeral traditions, but they’ve also ‘boosted’ it adding such options as renting a funeral hall for the pet’s farewell. For example, in Africa, pet cemeteries are not common, but there is a Monkey Sanctuary in Ghana that has a monkey graveyard, I would love to visit.
How do you want to present Rex In Peace to the world when it will be finished?
A book! I want to publish Rex in Peace photo-album. I work with the support of the Lithuanian Council of Culture on this project recently. In this time of uncertainty, I focus on material I already have, which allows me to select the photos, relevant information and prepare the design for my book.