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Fido’s Resting Place

How to make final arrangements for your dog

By Timothy Gower

If you ever find yourself in Bethlehem, Georgia, you may want to visit Oak Rest Pet Gardens, which is the final resting place of Bam Bam, a Chihuahua who passed away in 2012. Bam Bam’s owner, a woman from Atlanta, had her beloved pet embalmed and tucked into a sealed casket, which was placed inside an above-ground mausoleum. Surrounding the tomb is a 250 square foot “garden estate,” with flower beds, a koi pond, and a waterfall.

Oak Rest Pet Gardens is operated by Deceased Pet Care Funeral Homes & Crematories, of Atlanta. The company won’t say what it cost to memorialize Bam Bam in this grand fashion, but director of marketing (and registered pet funeral director) Donna Shugart-Bethune says that a small garden estate for a family of pets starts at $16,300. 

Chances are, your budget will be more modest when you decide how to deal with your pet’s remains after he or she ambles over the Rainbow Bridge, the mythical span to a joyous afterlife that our dogs, cats, and other animal buddies are said to cross when their lives on Earth come to an end. However, cost is just one consideration—your values, future plans, and local laws come into play, too. Planning ahead can help ease some of the anguish of losing a pet, yet most of us don’t. “It’s not something people think about,” says Shugart-Bethune, who is also executive director of the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories (IAOPCC).

Don’t wait until you’re standing tear-streaked in a pet hospital to decide what to do with dearly departed Fido or Fifi. Here’s a quick guide to your options.

Cremation

While no one keeps statistics on what pet owners do with the remains of their deceased animal buddies, “there’s been a definite shift toward cremation over the last 15 to 20 years,” says Shugart-Bethune. That reflects Americans’ growing comfort with being turned to ash upon dying over that time period, as the number of people in the United States who choose cremation for themselves now surpasses those who opt to be buried.

In cremation, a body is placed in a chamber and exposed to flames, which reduce it to bone fragments, which are then pulverized to ash. Cremation has several advantages, notes Shugart-Bethune. Having an urn or other vessel containing a pet’s ashes allows you to keep a part of him or her nearby for as long as you wish, even if you move. Or you can spread some or all of the ashes in a place that had meaning for you and the pet, such as a forest path where a dog loved to walk.

“Pet cremation can also be a more economical choice,” says Shugart-Bethune. Nationally, the cost of cremation ranges from about $85 to $200, depending primarily on which form you choose. The least expensive option is communal cremation, in which the remains are cremated with other animals. In most cases, you do not receive ashes back; instead the facility may offer to spread the combined ashes in a memorial area, though policies vary. In individual cremation, your pet’s remains will be placed in a crematory with other animals, but separated by a partition, such as a brick wall. Each animal’s “cremains” are removed separately and returned to the owner. However, a former crematory-industry employee told me there’s no guarantee you won’t get a bit of ash from another animal in the chamber. In private cremation, your pet is placed in the heated chamber alone. For an additional charge, some facilities allow for viewings prior to cremation.

To ensure that you’re getting your pet’s ashes back, ask if the crematory uses a tracking system. A typical method is placing a metal disk with a unique code number with the body, but other facilities use techniques such as digital barcoding. Also, ask if the crematory is accredited by IAOPCC, which requires facilities to meet specific quality standards.   

As an alternative, pet owners in some states can choose a flameless form of cremation, usually called aquamation, which is offered by a growing number of crematories. In this process (known as alkaline hydrolysis), the pet’s remains are placed in a chamber filled with water and alkaline chemicals, which is heated. Over the course of a few hours, soft tissue dissolves. Bone fragments remain, which are crushed to ash, as in flame-based cremation.

Aquamation for pets is legal in 35 states (and 17 states for humans), says Jerry Shevick, CEO of Peaceful Pets Aquamation, of Newbury Park, California.

The cost ranges from $100 to $350, depending on the size of the animal and where you live, says Shevick. 

Burial

Burying your beloved animal buddy in the backyard may seem like a simple way to deal with his or her remains, but keep a few things in mind before you grab a spade. For starters, your town or city may not allow home burial of pets. In Massachusetts, where I live, the laws on pet burial in your yard vary from one community to the next. Check with your local board of health before you start digging.

If you get the okay, dig the grave in dry soil, if possible; the body will decompose slowly in most soil and any toxins in the animal’s body could leech into the water table. Avoid sites near water sources, including wells, and underground utility lines. The hole should be deep enough to accommodate at least 18 inches of soil to cover, which is necessary to discourage wild animal predators from digging up the grave.

Bam Bam’s resting place in Oak Rest Pet Gardens, Bethlehem, Georgia

Of course, a home burial may not make sense if you plan to move in the future, and impossible if you rent. If you still favor burial, find out if there’s a pet cemetery nearby. At last count, there were about 750 pet cemeteries in the United States, says Shugart-Bethune, though she says the figure could be higher or lower today—the pet funeral industry is unregulated, she notes, so hard numbers are difficult to come by.

The oldest and largest burial ground for animal companions is Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, in Hartsdale, New York, which was established in 1896 and is the final resting place for more than 80,000 dogs, cats, birds, and other animals, including a lion cub. Located about 25 miles north of Manhattan, Hartsdale’s permanent guests include a number of celebrities’ pets, including Mariah Carey’s Jack Russell Terrier, Clarence.

As with cremation, you can save money by delivering your pet’s remains to a cemetery, but many owners find that too traumatic. Hartsdale charges $100 to pick up a deceased pet at the vet within Westchester county; pickups in New York City and other distant locales cost more.

At the cemetery, Hartsdale stores the remains in a refrigerated morgue, which eliminates the need for embalming (treating the body with chemicals to slow deterioration of tissues). However, keeping the body at refrigerator temperature will only preserve it for about a week, so plan on a prompt burial. “We don’t freeze the pet, because they don’t look as good in the casket,” explains Ed Martin, Jr., owner of Hartsdale. “We try very hard to make it look as if the pet is sleeping.”

You can pay for the various elements of a burial a la carte, but Hartsdale simplifies things for grieving pet parents by offering packages. “We don’t want to overwhelm people with numbers,” says Martin. A full funeral for a small dog (such as a Pekingese) starts at $2299, while the minimum cost to bury a larger dog (such as a German shepherd) is $2825. That includes a simple plywood casket and interment. Choosing prime locations (such as near a shade tree or a walking path) increases the cost; so does selecting a fancier casket made of woods such as cherry and poplar, or metal and even plastic. There’s also a fee for upkeep of the plot, which starts at $80 a year, though a one-time payment of $2600 covers the cost of keeping your pet’s grave well-manicured for eternity.

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About the Writer

Timothy Gower is a writer who lives on Cape Cod. He’s currently between dogs. His Bucket Age floats around 30.


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