Not so long ago, Surrey was home to the only active cemetery dedicated to departed pets in British Columbia.
In the early 1950s, Burnaby residents Daniel and Nellie Blair unexpectedly lost their beloved dog to a car accident and were at a loss of what to do. If they had lived in a more rural area, they may have buried their pets on their own land. But the Blairs didn’t have that option in their urban home.
Losing their pet was a life-changing experience for the family. They felt strongly there had to be another way to lay their dog to rest, and that other pet owners would feel the same.
After much research, the Blairs found that all they needed to create their own pet cemetery was a business license and a suitable plot of land. In 1952, they settled on a five-acre plot in rural Newton, on a hill crest near 76 Avenue and 147 Street. The land would need clearing but it was perfectly central and easy to access. Thus began the B.C. Pet Cemetery, the only one of its kind in the province at that time.
The land was cleared, and a park-like atmosphere developed. For a modest fee, a pet could be interred with a monument and a funeral service could be provided. It filled a need that resonated with many. Advertisements for the service appeared in local newspapers, and it wasn’t long before word of mouth spread. Although most pets who were laid to rest in the cemetery belonged to local families, some were from as far away as the Yukon and Seattle.
In some ways, a pet burial was not unlike a human burial. A satin-lined coffin would be selected, an appropriately sized grave dug, and the coffin would be transported by the family sedan to be lowered in its final resting place.
Nellie Blair noted in The Columbian in 1983, “There’s a lot of tears shed here, it’s just like a regular funeral. Men take it hard. They feel like they’ve lost a good friend and weep copiously.”
Over the years, it became the final resting place of more than 670 pets including birds, dogs, cats and even horses. Gravestones were engraved with touching sentiments such as “Our Precious Angel Sweet Muffie, A Gift From Heaven.”
Some of the Blairs’ clients made provisions to be cremated and have their ashes interned next to their pets. There are no provincial regulations that prohibit scattering or internment of cremains, if the permission of the owner of the property has been gained. The Blairs ensured that their wishes were fulfilled.
Nellie continued on with the pet cemetery after her husband Daniel passed away in 1970.
By 1978, a price list noted the cost for burying a departed pet was $45 for a cat, and $65 to $85 for a dog, depending on size. Other animals were quoted upon request.
Elaborate headstones, such as rose-coloured marble carvings from India and laser-etched images on granite were found throughout the cemetery. It was a rare day that one could go by without seeing a person taking in the peaceful nature of the site.
By 1987, Nellie Blair was 82 and had been at the helm of the B.C. Pet Cemetery for 35 years: it was time for her to retire. She put the property up for sale, and ads appeared in the Surrey Leader with the tagline “Love of Pets is our Business.” Local realtor Thomas Melski continued with the cemetery with just as much compassion and patience as Nellie Blair. It was renamed the Surrey Pet Cemetery, as it was no longer the only such place in B.C.
When a new owner took over the land in 1995, the cemetery stopped accepting remains and the property was subdivided for development. While it was Nellie Blair’s wish that the cemetery continue, pet cemeteries are not protected by the provincial government and there was nothing that stood in the way of development. It was a blow to a community who had come to depend on the little haven for their departed companions. The closest cemetery for pets was now in Kent, Washington, but taking a deceased animal across the border was difficult.
The following year, at the age of 90, Nellie Blair passed away. Her wishes were to have her cremains buried with her beloved lost dogs, but it is unclear if this was honoured. The headstone in the cemetery had been made with such a purpose in mind, leaving only an open spot for the date of her passing.
In 1997, the pet cemetery went up for sale again but was listed now as only a half-acre plot for $172,000. The rest of the land had been approved for subdivision into 22 single family lots and the location was revised to 78 Avenue and 147A Street.
Groups such as the Friends of the Surrey Pet Cemetery and Western Pet Memorial Foundation formed with the intention of raising the funds to purchase the land to protect it in perpetuity. While they were ultimately unsuccessful, a covenant was placed on the property until 2010 that no further development could progress.
The overgrown, half-acre plot of land still exists today, with a few headstones still visible. It provides a glimpse into Surrey’s rural past and, while it may not have been Nellie Blair’s full vision, it represents the compassion she showed to so many of the people who grieved for their loyal companions.
Sue Bryant is a local historian and a member of the Surrey Historical Society. She is also a digital photo restoration artist, genealogist and a volunteer at the Surrey Museum and Surrey Archives.