The first animal to be buried in an elaborate grave at Casa Rosa, the oldest pet cemetery in Italy, was a beloved chicken belonging to the sons of the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.
Word of its existence soon spread among the Italian elite, and before long the cemetery was hosting the remains of cats and dogs owned by the country’s former royals and a variety of other VIP pets, including hamsters, rabbits, pigeons and lions belonging to politicians, magistrates and film directors.
The French actor, Brigitte Bardot, who was in Rome in the 1950s to film Il Disprezzo (Contempt), also laid her dog, Michael, to rest at Casa Rosa, tucked away in a quiet spot in the Portuense area of the Italian capital.
Today, the cemetery hosts about 1,000 graves, each with headstones featuring a photo of the pet, tender inscriptions and surrounded by flowers, figurines or teddy bears. As demand for a dignified resting place for domestic animals grows, authorities in Rome’s administrative region, Lazio, are seeking to replicate it .
Casa Rosa was founded by Antonio Molon – a vet who took care of Mussolini’s Great Danes – in 1922, the year the dictator took power. The cemetery, an area of land next to the Molon family home, is now run by his son, Luigi.
“At that time, they sold coloured baby chickens at trade fairs, it was an old custom,” said Luigi Molon. “There were these three chicks [that Mussolini bought], two died straight away and one became a playmate for his sons. After a while, she died too and Mussolini, knowing that my dad had a piece of land, asked if the chicken could be buried there – somewhere his sons could visit, leave a flower and recall happy times.”
Although cemeteries akin to Casa Rosa exist in other regions of Italy, in Lazio there is no specific law that permits them. Casa Rosa operates thanks to a licence granted by the council in Rome, last renewed in 1984, and because it has land suitable for burying animals. So unless a pet owner has a patch of land, say a back garden, deemed appropriate, then they have no choice but to have the animal cremated.
“For example, if there’s an underground aquifer, you can’t bury your animals as you would pollute everything,” said Molon. “We are the only ones with a licence.”
Some of those who miss out on a coveted spot for their pets at Casa Rosa end up seeking burial plots beyond Lazio.
But that could be about to change. Regional politicians with the Five Star Movement are working on a proposal that would allow the creation of cemeteries dedicated to the burial of domestic animals. The goal is to guarantee respectable burials while ensuring animals are interred in a secure and controlled way.
“This means the remains of the animals will no longer be disposed of as waste, reducing the risk of polluting aquifers due to unauthorised burials and of spreading disease in the event of remains being thrown into rubbish bins,” the politicians said in a statement. “It would be a civilised law, one that we owe to ourselves and, above all, to our four-legged friends in order not to break the bond that was created in life.”
Molon said the law was needed, adding he was overwhelmed by demand, mainly from the well-heeled faction of Lazio’s society.
“They are in immense pain and have no sense of time, sometimes calling at 2am, but what can I do? I can’t come and collect the dog at that hour,” he said. “Some people live alone and previously you might have put such a strong bond with an animal down to that, but nowadays pets really are an important component of a family.”
Generally, burial plots at Casa Rosa are rented for five years, although many pet owners choose to renew, visiting regularly to tend to the grave and leave flowers.
“Some come every day,” said Molon. “It’s as if they’re taking their pet for a walk.”
Greta, a lion, has been there since 1988. Close by is Duchessa, a cat who died in 2008. On her tombstone is a message that reads: “In our hearts and minds forever”. The most opulent grave belongs to Dreys, a dog whose remains are covered with a black marble grave ledger that cost €12,000, while perhaps the most unusual animal buried at Casa Rosa is a tortoise called Ruga.
Molon said Mussolini’s granddaughter, Alessandra, visited the cemetery up until a few years ago, even if the chicken’s plot is no longer there.
While Molon, who has two dogs, fully understands the affection owners have for their pets, he acknowledges that some of his customers are perhaps “a little extreme”.
“They don’t know the difference between reality and fantasy … they prefer to speak to a dog rather than a human being because the dog doesn’t talk back.”
He said he is passionate about his job, even if some people “turn their noses up” at it. “I love animals… but I also love people.”