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Coleen Ellis is a mover and a shaker. She has almost single-handedly made it possible for many people to access a pet-specific funeral home when they seek to memorialize a beloved animal’s passing. More and more, companion animals’ status in our lives is rising, as the value of their relationship with humans is lent credence by more professional associations. Read about the exciting new trends in pet funerals and even legal arenas.—Sid
Pet funeral industry undergoing major changes
Today, there are over 750 pet funeral homes, pet crematories and pet cemeteries across the country — and a lot of human funeral homes have or are looking at ways to offer services when pets die. By: Associated Press, INFORUM
This 2010 photo courtesy of Coleen A. Ellis for Two Hearts Pet Loss Center shows the Tribute Table for Mike The Dog in Ellis’ home in Greenwood, Ind. Mike died in July 2010 and Ellis kept the Tribute Table up for about a month as her family honored him and all of the things that were important to him in his life. (AP Photo/Two Hearts Pet Loss Center, Coleen A. Ellis)
LOS ANGELES — Her 14-year-old dog Mico had lung cancer and Coleen A. Ellis knew she was taking her to the vet for the last time. She watched as the vet started to put the terrier schnauzer’s body in a garbage bag. “I couldn’t just walk out of there with a leash and a collar,” she said. Ellis took Mico’s body home instead. A local funeral home agreed to cremate Mico. But as she waited in the chapel, Ellis said she was told they couldn’t turn on the lights because they were having a service for “a real death” down the hall. She vowed to make changes.
A year later, in 2004, Ellis opened what is believed to be the country’s first stand-alone pet funeral home in Indianapolis. Today, there are over 750 pet funeral homes, pet crematories and pet cemeteries across the country — and a lot of human funeral homes have or are looking at ways to offer services when pets die. Ellis sold her mortuary and now runs Two Hearts Pet Loss Center, which arranges memorial services and helps people grieve the loss of a pet. In 2009, she helped start the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance as a committee of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association.
As the industry grew, so did the alliance. It’s holding its second annual conference this week in Las Vegas. The group’s goals are simple — set and maintain standards for services related to pet deaths, such as funerals, memorials, cremations and burials. Poul H. Lemasters, an attorney and president of Lemasters Consulting in Cincinnati, has worked in the funeral industry for over 15 years and is licensed as a funeral director and embalmer in Ohio and West Virginia. When he talked about pet cremation liabilities at PLPA’s inaugural meeting in San Antonio, he drew an audience of 200. More than twice that number has signed up to attend his session at this week’s PLPA conference.
Consumers need more than a handshake from pet morticians, he explained. They need transparency, including a standard cremation authorization form spelling out services, methods, choices and cost. The PLPA will vote on a proposed form during their convention.
“On the human side, the biggest issue out there is always wrongful cremation. On the pet side, it’s not wrongful cremations, but whether cremations are being done at all,” Lemasters said. There have been animal dumping cases in Arizona, Virginia and Tennessee, where pets were stored instead of cremated, then taken to a landfill or dump and dropped off, he said. He said Illinois is the frontrunner on laws governing disposition of deceased pets and pet funerals. Ninety percent of pet owners choose cremation rather than burial for their pets, he said.
But while cremation has been offered for a long time, many other types of legal issues related to the deaths of pets — and even the deaths of owners who are survived by their pets — are now getting more attention. Pets are named in wills, they receive trusts, they are part of prenuptial agreements.
In a few states, laws are being rewritten to treat pets as more than personal property, Lemasters said. California has a new law that says if your animal is killed maliciously, you can claim certain types of damages, Lemasters said. In Florida, a dog died while under a veterinarian’s care and was cremated before an autopsy could be conducted. The family was awarded more than $10,000 in punitive damages. Nevada enacted a law allowing pet-owners emotional damages from the death of a pet in certain circumstances up to $5,000. But pet owners can also sue for vet bills and funeral costs, Lemasters said. “The fact they are starting to recognize funeral costs for a pet, that’s pretty unbelievable.”
Memorial services are sometimes held for working dogs, too, whose deaths may affect not just the animal’s owner or handler, but an entire agency, business or community. When a police dog named Bo was killed in May 2007, Ellis was asked to help arrange a memorial service. Bo had been with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department for about four years when a burglar “turned around with a gun and shot Bo a couple of times. Bo went back to his handler and died in his arms,” Lt. Benny Diggs said. Bo’s service was attended by about 150 people from the police department and the community. “I really believe it helps,” Diggs said. “When you are a policeman, especially a K-9 handler, that dog becomes your partner.”
The 30-minute service was respectful, but didn’t go overboard, he added. “We keep it in perspective. We are losing soldiers daily in Afghanistan and Iraq and police officers are dying throughout the United States every week. We never want to take away from their service or what they are doing for the community,” he said.
As pets play bigger roles in people’s lives, it makes sense they will be treated more like family when they die, and that includes holding the types of funeral services that at one time were held only for people, said veterinarian Jane Shaw, who spoke at PLPA’s meeting last year. Shaw is director of the Argus Institute in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. “Telling stories, playing music and reading poetry are all things that allow us to express what this individual meant to us,” she said, “whether it’s human or animal.”
Yesterday, I got to meet a wonderful veterinarian, Dr. Rebecca McComas, whose business is Minnesota Pets Gentle Euthanasia at Home. She is a warm and gentle person with the very best attitude toward death I’ve ever encountered
I asked her how she manages the sadness of her job and she said she understands how sad the people are who are personally losing a beloved friend, but, she said, “I LOVE my work! This is the most loving thing you can do for a pet that’s suffering.” She told me that when she’s surrounded by the animal’s human family and they’re all shedding tears for their loss, she doesn’t feel the need to cry herself because they’ve got that covered. Tears are the first stage of their honoring and saying goodbye to their pet, an indication of how much that animal had meant in their lives.
What is hardest for her to take is when the humans are all stoic and nobody’s crying at all. “That just kills me,” she said.
I shared with her the fact that I always, ALWAYS cry at a euthanasia, even when I’m accompanying someone whom I may never have met before and witness the passing of a pet who’s also unknown to me. “I’m crying somewhat out of empathy for the grief the people are feeling, but more than that, I’m crying because of the profound beauty I’m witnessing when the pet actually transitions out of this life and into the next so peacefully.” Apparently, this made Dr. McComas’s day because she finds it difficult to explain that part of the process to people.
“It really is beautiful!” she said, eyes glowing.
I know that whenever I’ve held my own sweet animal companions and watched them gently slip away, I always think, “That’s exactly how I want to go!” They better have legalized human euthanasia by the time I’m in need of that release from my body.
Below is a video made by Dr. McComas to explain her services. If you’re facing this painful decision, this is well worth watching.—Sid
This is one of my articles posted through Examiner.com, where I am notably the Minnesota Pet Loss Examiner.—Sid
Animal lovers universally know how difficult it is to come to the decision to end a pet’s life in the first place, but to decide this and then have to bundle up an aged, ailing, or injured pet to transport him or her to the vet’s office can make things even tougher.
The longest miles you’ll ever travel are those between your house and your vet’s office when bringing your most beloved animal friend to be put to sleep. They may also be the most dangerous if you are alone and attempting to drive through torrents of tears. For many, in-home euthanasia provides a peaceful, undisruptive option to the often sterile surroundings of a veterinary clinic.
Though not universally available, such services are becoming more and more common as veterinarians respond to pet owners’ needs to provide the gentlest manner of euthanasia, allowing the animal to rest comfortably amid familiar surroundings with their loving humans and even fellow pets around them to say goodbye.
In the Twin Cities area, this service is often available seven days a week, including evenings, and same-day appointments can often be accommodated. You may first check with your regular vet as to whether he or she offers such services. For additional support at this difficult time, some people opt to call in an animal chaplain to be present at the euthanasia as well.
What can you expect from in-home euthanasia? Commonly, a vet will first give the animal a sedative to both calm him or her and ensure he or she will experience no pain. A razor may be used to remove fur from the leg where the drugs may be administered.
Then an injection of medication to stop the heart and breathing will be given, wherein the animal will simply appear to fall asleep within moments or, at most, just a few minutes. (It is advisable to have a sheet of plastic covered with old towels placed beneath the pet for when the bladder/bowels empty once he or she passes.)
Afterward, the vet may take an impression of your pet’s paw print in clay and/or shave some bits of his or her fur for you to keep as commemorative items. You will be allowed to spend as much time as you need to with your pet’s body.
Fees are often in the vicinity of $200–$400 for these house calls and may include the vet’s removal of the body followed by either group or individual cremation. In the latter instance, the ashes will be returned to the pet owner. Urns may also be available for purchase.
You may choose to have your pet buried in a pet cemetery in your area. Or, you may also opt to bury your pet yourself, provided it is legal for you to do so where you live.