HARTSDALE, New York – A state agency has told New York's animal cemeteries to stop burying the ashes of pet owners alongside their beloved cats, dogs and parakeets.
The order from New York's Division of Cemeteries comes as a growing number of Americans are deciding to share their final resting place with their pets.
The ruling has blocked at least one burial at the 115-year-old Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, which claims to be the nation's oldest.
And it has upset a woman who had prearranged to have her ashes interred there along with five pets, four of which are already buried.
"Suddenly I'm not at peace anymore," Rhona Levy said Friday. "You want to be with the people you are closest with, your true loved ones. The only loved ones I have in my life right now are my pets, which I consider my children."
Levy, 61, said she has no backup plan and is hoping the state order will be reversed.
Taylor York, a law professor, said the state order compounded the grief in her family after the April death of her uncle, Thomas Ryan.
Ryan's wife, Bunny, and their two dogs, B.J. I and B.J. II, are buried at Hartsdale. Ryan had arranged, and prepaid, to join them, York said. There's also a space for B.J. III, who's still alive.
But Ryan's ashes sit in a wooden box at his sister's home because the state's new rule won't allow him into Hartsdale.
"My mother is completely distraught over this," York said. "She breaks down in tears again and again, every time it crosses her mind. After watching her brother die, she has to go through this insanity?"
Hartsdale was ordered to stop taking in human ashes -- it never allowed intact human remains -- on Feb. 8, three days after it was featured in an Associated Press story about human burials in pet cemeteries. The order was issued statewide in April, said Lisa MacSpadden, spokeswoman for the New York Department of State, which includes the cemetery division.
She said that remains buried in human cemeteries benefit from state protections more so than if they are buried at pet cemeteries. For instance, she said human cemeteries qualify for the state-mandated permanent maintenance fund, which ensures that lots and cemeteries are maintained.
Hartsdale, north of Manhattan, has an estimated 700 humans interred with about 75,000 animals.
It has added 10 or 12 in each of the past few years, compared with three to five before, Ed Martin Jr., the cemetery's president and director, said in February. The International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories has also noted a recent increase nationwide.
The New York cemetery division said any cemetery providing burial space for humans must be operated as a not-for-profit corporation. And by promoting the human-interment service and charging a fee -- $235 to open a grave and add ashes -- Hartsdale was violating laws governing not-for-profit corporations, it said.
However, Martin says the pet cemetery is a private, for-profit business. And the Division of Cemeteries' own website says private cemeteries do not fall under its jurisdiction.
"It seems ridiculous we can't do it," Martin said Friday. "As of now, we've suspended the human part of it, but it's our position that they don't have the authority to do this." He said the service was an accommodation for customers and never raised significant revenue.
York, who has a law practice in addition to her teaching post, has sent the cemeteries division a legal memo detailing why she believes it cannot prevent human burials in pet cemeteries.
"The law is clear," she said. "There's no authority for this board to just arbitrarily impose nonprofit corporation law on a privately incorporated for-profit business. ... If I have to file a lawsuit, then I'll file a lawsuit."
"My uncle wants to be buried beside his wife and what he considered to be his children and I'm not letting anyone stand in the way," she added. "His love for those dogs was just as real and just as strong as any parent's for any child."
The state asked Martin to sign a pledge that Hartsdale had stopped human interments, but he has resisted.
Instead, he asked the state to at least "grandfather" the cases of people who had already arranged to have their ashes buried with their pets.
MacSpadden said that request would be discussed at the next Cemetery Board meeting.
The state position could disrupt Martin's own plans. He said earlier this year he hoped his ashes would be added to a family plot -- including a dog -- at Hartsdale.