The hardest question every pet parent must eventually confront is this: What will I do when my pet dies? When my childhood cat, Sammy, was winding down, I couldn’t bear to think about the next steps — his death, his lifeless body, where or how his earthly remains would be laid to rest. When Sammy passed away — peacefully at home — I was inconsolable.
Not knowing what to do, my mom and I surrendered his body to his vet, who promised that he would be cremated and his ashes scattered. Giving Sammy’s body to the vet was the last I ever saw of him. Nearly 15 years later, I have never felt at peace over his after-death care. Knowing what I know now, I regret my actions with my Sammy.
How was Sammy’s body stored before cremation? Was he cremated individually? Were his cremated remains really scattered? Or was he thrown away with the trash? Unfortunately, these are questions pet parents must consider.
At the time, I didn’t know I had options for post death pet care. I thought once my cat died, the vet would deal with his body in a fitting manner but didn’t think much about what “manner” it would be. But pet parents do have choices, and we can select the best way to peacefully and respectfully honor our furry, feathered, or scaled family members after death.
Pet parents want more for their pets after death — burial, cremation, and even memorial keepsakes — and an industry has emerged in response. However, like with any growing industry, unscrupulous practices have begun to appear, ones that prey on mourning individuals.
But how can one protect against dishonest practices? What services are worth your money? Is it possible to conduct your own post-death pet care and memorial — make a “DIY pet memorial?” Considering the first two questions, the answer can be distilled into a single idea: transparency.
Whether you’ve chosen to cremate, bury, or even aquamate your pet, a good after-death pet care service should be open and honest about its practices. The business should be willing to answer any questions.
For example, when choosing a company to cremate your pet, there should be no mystery. Some questions to ask are:
If you are ever made to feel foolish or like “you wouldn’t understand what we do,” don’t give the business your money.
Also, not all veterinarian-affiliated cremation services are the same. Ask your vet for the name and contact information of the cremation service before it takes your pet — preferably before your pet dies. If you do not like the cremation service your vet uses, don’t use it. Most reputable pet cremation companies, pet cemeteries, or pet funeral homes will pick up your pet’s body from your vet.
A quality after-death pet care service will not make a grieving person feel uncomfortable about price, process, or timeline. Numerous professionals have told me it’s their job to be sensitive, knowing when to offer information rather than waiting for a grieving person ask.
What about “alternative” after-death pet memorials? With buzzwords such as “eco-friendly” and “all natural” proliferating the pet care market, it’s no surprise that such terms have made their way into after-death pet care.
I know of companies that promise to turn your pet’s ashes into a tree, as well as some that say they’ll take your pet’s DNA from cremated remains and go “Jurassic Park” by “immortalizing” them in crystal. If it sounds too magical to be true, it is.
“That’s not possible,” Caitlin says. “Ashes are inorganic materials. There’s not even any DNA left. Trees aren’t nourished by that. You can hope [the ashes] don’t kill the tree, but your pet’s cremated remains aren’t magically causing it to grow or becoming part of it.”
So what should pet parents do if they want to memorialize a pet with a tree?
“Your best and least expensive bet is to plant a sapling and sprinkle your furry friend’s remains at the base,” Caitlin advises. “Or, bury the whole animal and grow a tree over that spot.”
Which brings us to the question of the DIY pet memorial or even home burial. (I won’t go into home pet cremation because quite frankly it’s dangerous. Don’t do it.)
The simplest choice is burial. Says Caitlin, “The greenest way to dispose of a pet is to dig a hole in the earth (say, in your backyard) and place [your pet’s body] in. He will naturally break down and benefit the soil around him.”
Choosing to personally care for your pet’s body gives you the opportunity to say goodbye either through a memorial ritual or funeral ceremony. Here is how Caitlin memorialized her cat when she died.
There are also pet funeral homes that will guide you through the memorial process. Depending on what you want, the funeral home will instruct and guide you on how to prepare your pet for service and burial, or the business will do it for you. For a list of pet funeral homes around the U.S. click here, or visit the website for the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care for support and resources.
Of course if you decide to bury your pet yourself, you must investigate the burial laws in your area. Some laws dictate how deep the pet must be buried, where the pet is buried in relation to a residence, and the land on which your pet is buried (public or private property). If your pet died of an infectious disease, that will also factor into the burial.
In most cases, you must own the property on which your pet is buried. If you don’t own the property, you typically have to gain permission from the owner, which pretty much excludes all public property such as parks.
To find out the legality of doing a home or private burial, contact your municipal or county government.
If personally handling your pet’s burial is too painful, pet cemeteries or pet memorial parks can be a great alternative. A quality pet memorial park will handle the burying of your pet in a simple, sensitive, but open way, supplying you with options for headstones or memorials. Burying space in a pet cemetery allows a pet parent to visit the departed pet in a peaceful setting, making such visits special and personal. Some pet memorial parks will even assist in home burial upon request.
How you decide to care for your pet after death is very personal. It varies by what gives you and your pet peace and respect. For many, memorializing a pet’s spirit is more important than the animal’s earthly remains. In such cases, creating a little memorial in your home, donating to a charity in your pet’s name, or writing an obituary (yes, some papers will publish pet obituaries), might be what soothes you more than cremation or burial.
Confronting your pet’s death is not an easy thing to do, but knowing that you can continue to care for them even after death can be a path to peace and healing.
About the author: Louise Hung is a morbidly inclined cat lady living in Yokohama, Japan, with her cat, her man, and probably a couple ghost cats. She also writes for xoJane. You can follow her on Twitter or drop her a line at IamLouiseMicaela@gmail.com.