Most of us try not to think about that moment when our pets will leave us for good. “Pets play a lot of roles,” says Dr. Susan Cohen, a counselor at the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan. “We care for them like a member of the family, and they operate under the same rules.” From gerbils and snakes to dogs and cats, our pets protect us, get us exercising and meeting people, and provide the company of someone to nurture.
But for us and for our pets, death is as much a step in life as any other. Because death is a difficult subject, however, we often neglect to ask the right questions regarding our pets’ after-death care. And sometimes our neglect can come back to haunt us.
Cases are turning up around the world of animal hospitals, funeral homes, and cremation services using third-party disposal services for pet remains. Those disposal services also handle road kill, contraband, and medical waste. “There’s a place for disposal companies, but they shouldn’t be providing for people’s pets. If a company has a waste permit, I would not let my pet go there,” says Bill Remkus, owner of the Hinsdale Pet Cemetery in Willowbrook, IL.
Owing to lack of governmental regulation, disposal companies are able to bill themselves as pet cremators. In May 2010 alone, such cases occurred in Henryville, IN; Dunkirk, TX; Derbyshire, England; and Tokyo, Japan.
“We need people to think. We need them to question,” says Remkus. “People already distrust what goes on with the death of the pet. We hear that hundreds of times a month.”
Remkus, along with his sons David and Jon, who help run the cemetery, encourages pet guardians to educate themselves on ways to honor their pet’s life—from backyard burials to gemstones. “There are groups out there who will hold your hand through the whole thing,” Bill says, adding that if you choose cremation for your pet, do not be afraid to ask to be present during the process.
“We have so many people stay and watch the whole thing. They trust us, and it’s not on blind trust. These people have been here and understand what we do,” he continues.
Establishing a New Standard Of Care
The Remkus family has been in the pet cemetery business for four generations. “We grew up around it,” says Remkus. Because the family home shared the cemetery property, people would knock on the front door. “We’d be having a Sunday birthday party, and they would need to bury their pet,” he recounts.
So when the family realized that some places handled after-death care so poorly that guardians decided not to take in another pet, they decided to change the system. “Everyone loses on that—from toy manufacturers to drug companies,” says Remkus.
Enter Coleen Ellis, a grief counselor and founder of Two Hearts Pet Loss Center in Greenwood, IN. Ellis and the Remkus family met at a 2008 trade meeting in Denver. Ellis has worked for 23 years in the funeral business and has spent the past six working with pets. “I wanted to focus on the service aspect, the respectful care of bodies. I wanted [pets] to have the same options as the two-legged when they die.”
With a shared passion, their goal is to educate their peers and consumers. “Eyes are falling on [after-death care] a little more, and [people are] less afraid to step forward with litigation. Court systems are fighting daily to not look at pets as property,” Ellis says.
Together they created the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance. The group of more than 100 concerned pet professionals became a reality in early 2010 under the International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association, the trade’s major umbrella organization.
The alliance met first in March in San Antonio. They established a standards, accreditation, and ethics committee as well as an education committee to get the word out on proper after-death care.
“I wish I had a dime for every time that week I heard ‘finally.’ I’m trying to be positive and think that [people] want education and want to change. Some of those pet funeral professionals said they had no idea [disposal] was happening,” Ellis says.
Talking Through the Pain
In Manhattan, Dr. Susan Cohen has served as a counselor since 1982 who assists guardians in making difficult final decisions at the Animal Medical Center. She has seen more than 25,000 guardians and their pets. “Especially if you’re surprised, you might not be able to take everything in right away. That’s just human nature,” Cohen says.
She goes over guardian options, asking questions such as, “Do I use a pet cemetery where I’ll never go? Do I sprinkle ashes by the East River where we used to take walks? Do I have him turned into a gemstone?” Some cities do not allow private burial within city limits, so Dr. Cohen helps people answer questions like, “Do I plant a memorial rose bush?”
To many pet guardians, their pet’s spirit is more important than the body. Ritual can be a critical element in healing. “Rituals are designed to help the circle heal. When your community adds somebody or loses somebody, you need the ritual to help you through those transitions,” Cohen says.
Ellis agrees. Otherwise, she says, neglecting to process grief “interrupts the mourning and grieving process.”
The pet loss process poses various challenges. Guardians might struggle with telling themselves their pet was “only a pet,” prohibiting full expression of grief. Guardians also tend to view their pets as innocent, and in the death of a pet the guardian may shoulder all responsibility. “Whether it’s self-protection or what, [with people] we ascribe blame, but when it comes to pets many people will really beat themselves up.”
To help, the Animal Medical Center offers support groups. “When you sit in a group and see completely innocent people beating themselves up, you have that distance,” Cohen says. And when people see that, they often realize their own innocence. “You begin to believe the good of yourself in a way that other people can’t just tell you.”
Cohen also tells guardians they can ask to be present at pet burials and cremations. After all, for as much as we treat our pets like people in life, we should respect them equally in death. That means asking questions, researching, and seeking others—family, friends, or professionals—to help you through the process.
Visit the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance online at MyPLPA.org.
Learn more about the Animal Medical Center’s counseling program at AMCNY.org/counseling.