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As soon as Emily, my Jack Russell Terrier, was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension and two defective heart valves at the age of 12, I decided what to do should the worst occur: individual cremation with the ashes returned to me. I don’t remember why I picked this. I was the first person in my family to have a dog. I figured I’d be the first one to lose a dog too.
I repeated my wishes to my mom every time I traveled in case Emily died while I was away, though I joked that she’d live forever.
She didn’t, of course. I told the vet, between sobs as a port was put into Emily’s leg to end it all, exactly what I’d practiced saying before: individual cremation with her ashes returned to me.
I didn’t even know there were other options until I became infuriated that her ashes came back in a pressed wood box with her name scrawled on the top in Times New Roman font.
My dog was exquisite, a cantankerous bundle of love and light. She was not a default font. She also wasn’t a teardrop urn with paw prints running along the side. She wasn’t a box with a ceramic dog on top that looked nothing like her. She wasn’t a cheap bracelet that held her ashes either. She was my dog, and she was dead. She deserved a better final resting place than that ugly box. I deserved better too.
I soon discovered that what we do with our pets after they die is its own industry.
After the worst of that overwhelming grief started to ebb, I got to thinking, when did we start thinking of pets as beloved companions, support systems we value even on the level of human family members? When did we start holding funerals and shopping around for headstones, urns, the perfect burial location?
Until around the 1800s, pets as companion animals were often viewed as a luxury that only the wealthy could afford. And in the case of dogs, they were often both pets and working dogs. Take the many dogs at Hampton—which was considered the largest private mansion in the U.S. when it was finished 1790 and once included 10,000 acres of land—for example: “Almost as far back as I remember there has nearly always been one or more of these dogs at Hampton so much so as to seem almost a necessary or characteristic accompaniment of the place,” wrote James McHenry Howard in a 1894 memoir about his sister Margaretta Howard Ridgely’s home, which is located in Maryland and is now a National Park Service site. There were always dogs, Gregory R. Weidman, curator for both the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine and Hampton National Historic Site, tells SELF.
The earliest evidence of dogs as companion animals at the Hampton estate dates back to 1856, in a painting of four Ridgley cousins with one of the boys holding onto a little black spaniel. Weidman says they’ve found evidence of dogs buried not in but right outside of the family cemetery on the property, though she assumes dogs have been buried all over the grounds. “Most people who lived in the country would have just buried their dog,” she says.
But by the late 1800s, pets were becoming companions of the less than wealthy, and as cities grew, so did pet ownership in those crowded spaces. One big problem: pet owners didn’t have acres of land in which they could bury their pets. They didn’t have any land at all, which meant the only real option was to put their pets’ bodies “on the curb for the trash man to take away,” Ed Martin III, vice president of Hartsdale Pet Cemetery and Crematory in Westchester, N.Y., tells SELF.
And that’s arguably how pet cemeteries took off. The International Association of Pet Cemeteries & Crematories (IAOPCC) formed in 1971 and now has 250 members in 15 countries. Executive director Donna Shugart-Bethune tells SELF that it’s hard to pin down how big the industry is because it’s still largely unregulated, but she says the organization’s best guess is that 750 pet cemeteries exist in the U.S.
Hartsdale, which was born in 1896, is one of the most famous pet cemeteries and on the National Register of Historic Places list. The original founder, Samuel Johnson, was a New York City-based veterinarian with a summer home in Westchester. A client of Johnson’s was so distressed about what to do with her pet’s body that he suggested she bury her pet on his property. Soon after, Martin III tells me, Johnson was having lunch with a friend who was also a New York Times reporter and thought it would make a good story.
“Eventually a pet cemetery evolved out of that,” Martin III explains. The cemetery was incorporated in 1914 and local townspeople became caretakers after Johnson died. Ed Martin Sr. owned a monument lettering business, and one of his main clients was the pet cemetery. That’s what led Ed Martin Jr. (Martin III’s father), who is still the cemetery director, to buy the cemetery along with a friend in 1974 (the friend has since retired).
Hartsdale is now the final resting spot for nearly 80,000 pets. They offer burial and funerals, but also cremation services. Martin III suggests that cremation became more popular for pets than burial in the 1980s, as cremation became more acceptable for people too.
Martin III has been working at the cemetery since high school when he spent his summers there cutting the grass. “When I was younger and I hadn’t experienced losing a pet, I didn’t really understand,” he recalls. Then he lost his first pet, and he got it.
“Sometimes I hear from people who say, ‘I lost both parents and I lost my pet. This is worse. I feel guilty about that. Am I normal?’” Martin III says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that comment.”
Hartsdale is for pets only, but not every pet cemetery operates that way. The Lohman Pet Cemetery in Daytona Beach, Fla., for example, is a section within Daytona Memorial Park and allows people to be buried with their pets. The pet section features a statue of an angel holding two dogs and is flanked by benches that are the final resting spot for both people and their companions. The pet section also has a memorial to K9 and military dogs.
I visited on a gray humid day in February 2018 and passed by headstones for Sunny and Sweet Boy and Angel and Snooks and Clancy and Misty, while a police car idled in the nearby parking lot. At first, I thought the officer was just taking a break, but then I thought perhaps he was there visiting a former dog partner.
Shugart-Bethune of IAOPCC, who is also director of public relations for Deceased Pet Care Funeral Home, Crematory, and Cemeteries in Georgia, says that pet funerals “can be as simple or elaborate as a pet parent wants to make it.” They do funerals and viewings daily. Some are private but they’ve also held elaborate, full-service funerals, including K9 officer funerals with a 21-gun salute. “We can have as many as 70 officers and K9s attend the service,” she says. “For pet parents, it’s all about honoring the life of that pet and what that pet’s life meant to them and their family.”
As much ballyhoo is made about how we treat pets like family members (for better or for worse: when I wrote an essay about my dog dying, I got an email telling me I really needed a boyfriend)—with our dog strollers and clothes and beds and daycares and even dog hospice—not everyone in this country is willing to spend on their pets and their afterlife. For a lot of people, says Shugart-Bethune, the dump is still where they take their pets’ bodies (and you can look up your state/local dead animal disposal guidelines to get more information on how to contact a commercial waste facility if this is the route you’re considering). And, of course, pet owners still bury pets in the backyard, which keeps them close by but is still, in a lot of places, illegal or involves very strict private-property burial laws.
Taxidermy is also an option, though a lot of taxidermists won’t do pets because they’ll never really look like the pet. Tony Baratta, owner of Baratta’s Taxidermy in Collingswood, N.J., tells SELF that companies generally don’t make mannequins for domestic pets. “Even if they did, when I take the skin off an animal and tan it and wrap it around a mannequin, what is it going to look like? It’s going to look like that mannequin. It has no choice but to,” he explains. The only feasible option, in his opinion, for pets that will still look like your pet is freeze-dry taxidermy, which is essentially giving your pet’s body freezer burn to preserve it, Baratta explains.
That’s not an option that ever crossed my mind, and even writing that last paragraph made me gag. But soon after Emily died, a well-meaning friend sent me a link to a company that would make a stuffed animal version of her. I thought even that was too gruesome, though I did commission an illustration of her from illustrator and farmer Jenna Woginrich, who turned Emily into a Disney-like cartoon, ready to frame, which I loved.
I ordered that illustration while on a four-month, 16,000-mile road trip I took to see the 18 states I hadn’t been to yet. It’s something I couldn’t have done when Emily was alive because she didn’t travel well, and I didn’t want to leave an elderly dog in someone else’s care for that long. Her ashes stayed in that bland box on shelf at my mom’s house with a figurine of the Fairy Godmother from Disney’s Cinderella watching over her. When I returned, I still hated that box, so I dove back into Etsy’s trench of grief crafts and managed to find a gem: My Inspirations In Wood, a company run by Darrell and Margo Magnussen, a retired couple in Northern Minnesota that sold wooden pet urns. Most of the natural-wood urns were too big for my 12-pound dog; so Margo, who runs the business while her husband makes the urns, told me at the time to pick out a larger one that I liked, and he’d make me a smaller one.
Darrell started out making wooden bowls and sold two at a craft show to people who planned to repurpose them as pet urns, which gave them the idea. The couple launched My Inspirations in Wood six years ago and have since sold urns to 14 different countries, including a batch of 100 to a veterinarian in Dubai. Darrell is now 80 years old and has customers joke they’re going to pre-order urns in case their pets outlive him.
The business isn’t just bigger than they expected, but also more satisfying than they could have imagined. The couple doesn’t have pets now because of their travel schedules, but they have had them for most of their married life and they know the grief that the end of those pets’ lives can bring.
“It’s so rewarding when we get these nice reviews. We get into nice conversations with people on the internet,” Margo told me.
“It’s really touching. That’s where their pets are going to be,” Darrell added.
That’s how I started talking to the couple. I ordered that small urn—a round cherry wood container made of 50 different pieces of wood, plus a medallion with Emily’s name and a paw print on top.
When I opened the urn, it smelled like my grandfather’s woodshop. He loved Emily who, when he was sick in the last years of his life, was a rambunctious terrier but would sit quietly and calmly on his lap when he asked. Despite how I still sometimes roll my eyes at the idea of the Rainbow Bridge, if there is one, I’d like to think she’s hanging out with him until I get there, and they’re both free from the old age that bowed them at the end of their lives.
After I transferred her ashes into the cherry wood urn, I burned that pressed wood box with the Times New Roman scrawl. It felt good to get rid of that junk.
Plus, I had a new dog to think about. On that 16,000-mile road trip, I adopted a cattle dog mix I named Annie Oakley Tater Tot to both honor her being a western dog and adopted in Idaho. She’s probably 3 years old and, at 30 pounds, feels like a giant compared to Emily. She looks like a deer, a fox, or a coyote, depending on the day. Though when people are confounded by what she is, I say she’s not a cattle dog, but a woodland creature I stole from the forest.
And while she navigates trails better than I can, and runs faster than I can, I know that won’t always be the case because she’ll age faster than I will too, and somewhere ahead I’ll be just as bereft as I was when I paid a veterinarian to stop Emily’s heart.
I’ve thought, like that customer of the Magnussen’s, of buying Annie’s urn now. But like talking about freeze-drying pets or having a stuffed animal version made of my dog, it’s too gruesome to think about for a pet who’s still very much alive. Maybe pet owners will have different options in the 10 years or so (I hope longer) ahead. Until then, I’ll live with the dog I have now, with the remains of a dog I once loved, watching over my shoulder, in a beautiful final resting spot.
Jen A. Miller is the author of Running: A Love Story.
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