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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

Why we buried our mom in a pet cemetery
Boston Herald, July 26, 2003
Chicago Sun-Times (Page 1), July 27 2003

Never argue with your mother, even if she isn't there to answer back.

That's the lesson my brother Glen and I learned in making the final arrangements for Jean Birkenstein Washington, who passed away in Chicago on June 28.

With credentials as a teacher, artist, mathematician and civil rights activist, she lived a full life beyond her 77 years, participating in endless causes for the betterment of humankind.

There were also those for plant- and animal-kind, which, though she loved many people, she generally cared for a bit more than humans.

Glen reminded me of that when we gathered in Chicago.

"You know what she wanted, don't you?" he asked.

"Uh-huh," I said. "But you can't do that. It's gotta be against the law!"

That desire, which she had brought up more than once, was to be buried in a pet cemetery--a request we had responded to by rolling our eyes and promising to talk about later. We never did.

But we did want to respect her wishes. So knowing she was not opposed to cremation, we decided we could do so and scatter her ashes in a pet cemetery.

Or sneak them in, if necessary.

Even better, Glen suggested, was for him to take some on his upcoming business trip to Puerto Rico to cast into the rain forest, another concern of hers.

I offered to scatter a portion in Vermont, which she also loved, and on Chicago's Goose Island, an industrial area she thought would be better used as a wildlife refuge.

Inspired, we agreed, and I headed back to Boston briefly while Glen's wife, Yvonne, finalized the cremation.

But just as I approached the gate at O'Hare, a realization came to me. I called Glen.

"Hey, we never called a pet cemetery to find out you can't bury a human there," I said.

"I know," he said, adding that he and Yvonne just had the same thought.

Maybe Jean was speaking to us because a few hours later, we found out you can bury a human in a pet cemetery.

Aarrowood, in north suburban Vernon Hills, was more than accommodating. They asked us if we preferred the Jewish side (of the human area) or the pet side.

That was a no-brainer. "The pet side," we said.

(We also bought an adjacent plot on the chance our family's pet ocelot, El Gato, might be located and join her someday. He lived 20 years, and his remains in 1988 were donated to Chicago's Field Museum as a possible exhibit, but were apparently removed when their basement flooded a few years ago.)

So at Aarrowood, with a rabbi officiating, she was laid to rest in a truly beautiful service. Her neighbors, for eternity, are Smokey the cat and Tippy the dog, whose headstone was graced with flowers and a rawhide bone.

All of which proves mother really did know best--though the pet cemetery wasn't her first choice.

Her real preference was to be taken to the zoo. For the lions, specifically.

We didn't make that call.

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