Art, Shelter Dogs, Public Graves, and Renewal: an interview with photographer Shannon Johnstone

by Eric S. Greene

Shannon Johnstone, Karsten #87239 (detail). © 2013. Part of the Landfill Dogs project. Adopted.

Here’s a treat for all those who care deeply about dogs and civic engagement: photographer Shannon Johnstone’s original, poetic photographic essay, Landfill Dogs. Published in 2013 to critical acclaim (we included one of her photographs in our developing Photography Gallery), this series of photographic portraits deserves continued attention from those who love animals and those organizations committed to their support – especially during this season of reflection and gift-giving (scroll to the end of the article for purchase information).

The Green Pet-Burial Society addresses the status of animals in society in life as well as death, our (dis)connections with the Earth, ways in which we honor those who have passed, and how only a relative few animals are remembered and mourned.

Johnstone highlights these themes among dogs whose unwanted-ness marks them for an untimely death. She focuses her lens on the life, joys, and fates of individual dogs within a society that – in the absence of caring families and nurturing homes – discards them.

In an unexpected turn, Johnstone takes dogs, whose future at a local animal shelter is uncertain, to a park created upon a landfill, liberating them for a few hours of fresh air and play. Yet this poignant outing above ground is juxtaposed with the reality of what lies below: the landfill contains the remains of thousands of other dogs prematurely put to death. In this deceptively natural setting, she leads us to contemplate the fates of captive animals who lack human companionship; the stark reality of their unwantedness (which serves as the raison de ne pas être vis-à-vis lethal injection); the meanings we give to death and life; the inequities inflicted upon forgotten dogs; and entire systems of captivity, domestication, and control over animals’ lives and bodies. As importantly, she documents the remarkable reactions the dogs have during a sublime moment of freedom.

We are grateful to Johnstone for sharing her thoughts and process through an email interview with the Green Pet-Burial Society; edited excerpts of which are shared below.

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Working Together

Change rarely happens overnight, nor is it ever the result of just one person. The changes we hope for the world can occur when each of us contributes to a common goal. Such has been the case for the Green Pet-Burial Society in 2018. Here are some highlights:


Reimagine 2018, San Francisco – April 17, 2018. We were invited to create an event as part of a week-long community effort called Reimagine End of Life featuring over 150 events across San Francisco. Ours was the only nonprofit dedicated exclusively to grief for our animal companions. Entitled ‘Honoring our Pets,’ we inaugurated a participatory, large-scale, public, kinetic art piece, ‘1,000 Doors: An Ecosystem of Love,’ at beautiful Ocean Beach. We also conducted participant interviews, which will become an integral part of this project, Reimagine held another event in New York City, but we could not attend due to lack of funds. Continue reading

Whole-Family Cemeteries featured on NPR and in a new book!


iStockphoto/Getty Images via NPR blog. Although we love the subtle shades of greys and greens, the image used by NPR is not that of a conservation cemetery – which would look like a wildlife preserve. Here, nature reclaims what was built.

We’ve had a great month!

The Green Pet-Burial Society and its programs promoting conservation whole-family cemeteries were highlighted in the new book, Even Vegans Die, by Carol Adams, Patti Breitman, and Ginny Kisch Messina. We were especially delighted that the authors chose to conclude the book with a discussion of our idyllic work, which highlights continuity and hope rather than a severing ‘death.’

Additionally, news outlet NPR (National Public Radio) featured our work in a recent blog by anthropologist Barbara King, entitled When ‘Whole-Family’ Cemeteries Include Our Pets. King wrote the influential book, How Animals Grieve (University of Chicago Press, 2013), which is listed in our Bibliography. We’re particularly pleased with the quote she used: Continue reading

One Year Sleeps, Another Awakes

Gerrit Dou (1613–1675), Sleeping Dog (detail), 1650. Oil on panel, 6 ½ x 8 ½ inches. The Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection. Image courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Gerrit Dou (1613–1675), Sleeping Dog (detail), 1650. Oil on panel, 6 ½ x 8 ½ inches. The Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection. Image courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The end of a year can be challenging, especially when we consider those who have recently passed, or those who passed years ago. Bereavement sneaks in, but only if we shut it out. As we close 2013 and look ahead to 2014, we’d like to share this poem by Denise Levertov.

Talking to Grief by Denise Levertov

Ah, Grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you. Continue reading

2012 Year in Review

Reed and Red by Per Ola Wiberg ~ powi on flickr.com2012 has been an eventful year for our Green Pet-Burial Society. This work is continually buoyed by the simple question:

Why is this important?

It’s not only about burials – it’s so much more than that! It’s about our worldviews of Nature, animals and our own humanity, and it’s about embracing all that is simple and beautiful in life. We’ve learned of four new green cemeteries that allow a pet’s remains to be buried in the family plot – two in the U.S. and two in the U.K. –  and we’ve seen established pet cemeteries plan for new green burial sections. Here are some other highlights: Continue reading

“We’ll do this – together”

Buster, Maudann and Doyle Shugart

Buster, Maudann and Doyle Shugart

A dear friend of our Green Pet-Burial Society, Doyle L. Shugart, passed on July 8, 2012. He is widely known and respected for establishing Deceased Pet Care, Georgia’s first and only full service pet funeral home and the largest pet funeral home in the nation.

Doyle founded Deceased Pet Care in 1972 at a time when (many if not most) regarded pet cemeteries as curiosities. Along with his wife, Maudann, and their three children, Keith, Kyle, and Donna, the Shugarts grew Deceased Pet Care to three locations, which include two pet cemeteries. Under his compassionate guidance, they have supported and comforted numerous bereaved families. Continue reading

One Day

Moon behind treeThere are times when one’s bereavement, believed to have healed, becomes reawakened. It could be from a familiar word or gesture, the reemergence of someone from one’s past, or some kind of exposure that feels impossible to contain. As with many journeys, grief spirals back and forth. It takes us to the precipice of life – infusing it with perspective – and then drops us into the mendacity of social convention, the desire for forgetting, and the hope for hope.

For all who struggle with grief, here is a song my friends sing. Written and sung by Matisyahu, it’s a blessing with wide meaning, an anthem for peace, and yearning for peace in our personal lives when people’s hostilities towards us may be turned into invited play. Enjoy!

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Call for Papers – Animal Death symposium

Anna MerrittAnimal Death. June 13, 2012, University of Sydney Camperdown Campus. This symposium brings together cross-disciplinary voices on the topic of Animal Death. It seeks papers that explore how animal and human death are conceptualized, diverge, differ and also connect in profound ways. Papers could explore issues of sacrifice, “necessary” expendability, utility, species extinction, human survival, climate change and conservation. They are particularly interested in human and animal relationships around the nature of death. These include (but not limited to) issues of grief (for the dead companion animal), euthanasia, rituals of slaughter, vivisection, cultures of denial, the issue of who is and isn’t attributed a soul, and post-death belief systems. Please send 200 word abstracts to Dr Jay Johnston by January 16, 2012. Panels of up to three speakers are welcome. Continue reading

New Pamphlet: The Greening of Pet Cemeteries

The Green Pet-Burial Society has recently been contacted by several people seeking to create new pet cemeteries, and several more wanting to create either a green burial section in an existing cemetery, or implement eco-friendly practices throughout their cemetery.

In response, we prepared a new document for pet cemetery professionals which covers the basic conceptual, cultural, aesthetic and economic aspects that are significant to cemeterians and eco-conscious consumers. Additionally, it reimagines pet cemeteries as local centers for environmental sustainability. Continue reading

2010-11 Year in Review

"Yellow Flowers" © Zest_pk

Thank You for your interest in, and support of, the Green Pet-Burial Society. What an extraordinary year! When I founded the Society in early 2010, it was important to launch our website first in order to provide grieving individuals and families with information they needed to make practical and green burial arrangements upon the passing of a beloved animal. No other service provides the type of information we do. It’s heartening to know that many found help either directly from us or from the information posted. Continue reading

LA Pet Memorial Park will consider Natural Burials

I proposed to the LA Pet Memorial Park that they designate a portion of their park exclusively for natural burials. The President of the Board, David Stiller, brought this issue up at their recent board meeting where it was enthusiastically received. Continue reading