NEW YORK – Many Americans treat their pets like family, giving them gifts on holidays, letting them sleep on the bed, taking them on vacations — and organizing elaborate burial rites.
These days, many pet owners are doing much more than just letting the veterinarian "take care of it." They are turning to the nation's nearly 700 pet cemeteries to give their animal companions a proper farewell.
"I think people take an animal into their home, and believe that having some ending to this is the right thing to do," said Ed Martin, director of Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in suburban Hartsdale, N.Y.
A grieving pet parent can choose from a range of services including cremation, in-ground burial or placement in a pet mausoleum. And some cemeteries even offer embalming services.
Owners can pre-plan their loyal friend's burial by purchasing a plot in advance, and pick from a variety of dog and kitty caskets, vaults, urns, pet headstones and plaques.
There is also a library of books for pet owners such as Cold Noses at the Pearly Gates, The Soul of Your Pet and Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet. And some newspapers have even begun printing pet death notices.
Susanna Patek of Flint, Mich., visits the graves of her deceased dogs R.B., Poco, Dempsey, Blackie and Tupper every other week at Pet Rest Gardens in nearby Flushing.
"My husband and I lost them all in a very short time," Patek said. "We were devastated. Those pets meant everything to us."
The five dogs were buried in oak caskets with velvet lining — Patek had them specially ordered — and their graves are marked with sculpted images of the precious pooches.
But such formal good-byes are not limited to Fidos and Fluffys.
Todd Steadman of Rochester, N.Y., had his family pet, a 150-pound, pot-bellied pig named Spencer, cremated at a nearby pet cemetery.
Not Stephen King’s Pet Sematary
Although the phrase "pet cemetery" might conjure images from the Stephen King novel, most pet burial sites are beautiful and peaceful like their human counterparts.
At Precious Pets Cemetery in Spencer, Okla., burial costs include a funeral in the Farewell Chapel, where the owners can view their deceased pets.
"They usually take photographs because the pets look really sweet; like they are asleep," said co-owner Linda McCullough. "I read a poem and some Bible verses; then we bury the pet."
Depending on the cemetery's location, burial of a small animal such as a cat can range from $300 to $700. Costs increase with the size of the animal.
Many cemeteries have dedicated areas to dogs of service. At Precious Pets, the remains of nine dogs who participated in rescue and recovery at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing are buried in the Faithful Guardians Garden.
And at the 100-plus-year-old Hartsdale Cemetery — the oldest operating pet cemetery in the world — a Port Authority police dog killed at the World Trade Center was cremated and honored at the War Dog Memorial.
Hartsdale's director said pet burials since the 1970s have remained steady — between 800 and 1,000 a year at that location alone. But the number of cremations has increased tremendously in the last 10 years, he said.
"I think most people were not even aware of their options," Martin said. "Now many veterinarians are trained in bereavement and grief and are telling owners the options available."
Pet Rest Gardens owner Bill Keillor believes the popularity of cremations reflects the times.
"We are a mobile society," he said. "Cremations allow people to take remains with them."
They also cost a lot less: $75 to $200 for a small animal. Communal cremations — when more than one animal is cremated at once — are even cheaper.
But even with all the options for honoring pets who've passed away, nothing can replace the companionship they provided in life, say some animal owners.
Although she is the owner of many animals, Susan Hamilton of Harwinton, Conn., said she shared a special bond with her cat, Blither. After he died, she cremated him and put his ashes in a heart-shaped tin.
But Hamilton said the inanimate object is too far detached from the cat she knew and loved.
"I can never again watch his antics or share a loving glance or feel him purr."