Saying Goodbye to Pets

pet cemetary

Memorials Help Ease Grief

by Sandra Murphy

After Penny Mitchell lost her Birman cat, Patrick, to cancer, she cried at work. “Do you want me to bring you another cat? My grandmother has a barn full,” said a co-worker. When another cat, Quickie, passed away, she heard, “You had him 17 years; what more do you want?”

Mitchell wanted more time with her cats, but more than that, she wanted understanding and respect for her feelings of loss and grief—something a funeral provides. Dog and cat people can be wary about sharing their feelings over the death of an animal and, as Mitchell discovered, subjected to insensitive remarks. The American Pet Products Association estimates that 63 percent of American households include animal companions. Coleen Ellis, owner of Two Hearts Pet Loss Center (TwoHeartsPetLossCenter.com), observes that when the inevitable happens, “People in the other 37 percent can’t relate or empathize; they just don’t get it.”

Ellis opened the first standalone pet funeral home in 2004. She explains, “A funeral brings closure, gives permission to grieve and offers an opportunity to remember a life well-lived. Why not do the same for your dog or cat as you would for any other family member?”

Compassionate Services
Funeral homes are beginning to understand that animals are part of the family. Separate rooms may be set aside for memorial services or full funerals, including viewing. The death of your special animal companion is stressful; dealing with professionals can ease the pain and help achieve the kind of service and memory you want.

“Grief is what we feel on the inside; mourning is grief shown. A cemetery marker often tells only the name, date of birth or when the pet joined the family and date of death,” Ellis says. “A funeral is for talking about the life lived between those dates.”

So, what’s the best way to invite friends and family to a funeral for a dog or cat without feeling awkward? Try, “This has been a hard time for me. It would be a big help if you would be with me when I say goodbye. Remind me of some of the stories I told you about Sparky.” Plan all details beforehand to eliminate the pressure to make on-the-spot decisions during such an emotional time.

Burial or Cremation
If burial is your choice, check local ordinances; some communities forbid backyard burials for health reasons. Also keep in mind that you may eventually relocate.

A pet cemetery is one option, and some allow humans to be buried there, too. As a rule, human cemeteries are not as flexible—for example, some states say no to animals, while others require separate sections for animals and humans.

You can select a standard casket that will protect the body for the long term, or go green with a biodegradable version, made from recycled paper products, cardboard, wicker or sea grass. Elizabeth Fournier, owner of Cornerstone Funeral Services & Cremation (CornerstoneFuneral.com), advises, “A green burial avoids the use of formaldehyde-based embalming and concrete vaults. It’s the way funerals used to be.”

With cremation, the decision is between private (your animal only, with ashes returned to you) or communal (more than one animal, no ashes returned). Fournier adds, “I have placed urns with a dog’s or cat’s ashes in caskets of their [human] loved one. The person making the funeral arrangements for the deceased will sheepishly ask if I can do this. They’re always so surprised that it’s quite common.”

Viewing or Memorial Service
If an animal has been euthanized at the vet’s office or died in an accident, children may not understand the loss. A viewing, after the animal has been bathed and groomed, may help both youngsters and other family pets understand why the missing animal is no longer around.

Additional Choices
“At the funeral for a Pomeranian named Miss Thing, she was in a white knit dress and looked like she was asleep,” recalls Fournier. “I also helped organize a tribute for a cat named Brutus. It included readings from the owner’s journal and all the grandchildren sang What’s New, Pussycat?” Children can choose photos, favorite toys or treats for a tribute table. A memorial service can also accompany a cremation.

Formal or Relaxed Setting
Full honors were given to Bo—a cross-trained narcotics/patrol dog with the Indianapolis Police Department, killed in the line of duty—including an honor guard, floral arrangements and a eulogy by K-9 Commander Lt. Benny Diggs. The local chief of police and sheriff spoke of Bo’s responsibilities and contributions to the community. Stories of Bo’s family life with Scott Johnson, his K-9 handler, rounded out the ceremony.

“It wasn’t just the handlers that came—about 100 officers and 50 people from the community also attended,” reports Diggs. “While losing a K-9 [team member] is not the same as losing a human officer, it still has an impact on the whole department. We’ve spent time training, living with and counting on these dogs. They deserve a service.”

A golden retriever named Mike had a more casual sendoff. A pet portrait and family photos set next to his urn and a bowl of his favorite treats inspired friends and family to share their favorite Mike stories.

Remembrances and Keepsakes
A plaster cast of a pet’s paw print or a clipping of fur for a scrapbook or locket can also keep memories close. Have a guest book for those that come to the service to sign, and also take photos of the tribute table.

Hosting a funeral or memorial service for a pet may not be for everyone, but they are becoming increasingly available for those who choose to say goodbye to a beloved companion animal, surrounded by friends and family. They are an outward sign of respect; both for your feelings and the life your four-legged friend lived. Who doesn’t deserve that?

Sandra Murphy is a freelance writer at StLouisFreelanceWriter@mindspring.com.

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