How to Handle a Pet’s Remains Can be a Complex Decision for Owners

Donna and Mark Hein have an agreement: Whoever dies first gets the dogs.

The dogs’ ashes, that is. The Lockport couple plan to have the cremains of their two beloved canines buried with them when they go.

“We did that with our two Dobermans growing up. We put their cremains in the caskets of my parents after they passed,” Donna Hein said.

For now, though, the ashes are kept in decorative tins.

Increasingly, people’s devotion to their pets is becoming larger than life. They go to great lengths, sometimes at great expense, to protect and honor their animals into eternity.

Like the Heins, who had their pets cremated at Kozy Acres in Joliet, many opt to handle after-life matters themselves instead of just leaving a deceased animal with a veterinarian.

Last year, there were five pet funeral services at Lain-Sullivan Funeral Home in Park Forest. Loving Memorial Pet Care operates there. It has its own crematory, owner Michele Johnson said.

Business has increased 20 percent a year over the five years she’s been in operation, Johnson said. She attributes the growth to the personal touch she offers.

“We have 24-hour-a-day assistance,” she said. “We’ll come to your home or to your vet to pick up an animal.”

Grievers get time to pay their respects before the pet is cremated. Johnson also sells burial palls and caskets for people who opt to bury an animal.

The palls are stuffed with herbs designed to keep critters away from pets that are buried in a back yard.

Each pet owner who chooses cremation gets a keepsake card with the paw and nose prints of their beloved animal. They also receive a tuft of fur in a keepsake sack.

Johnson also sells a complete line of urns, scattering containers and memento jewelry.

“I try to accommodate every request,” she said.

Including the saddest ones.

Last summer, Stephanie Fisher, 21, of Park Forest, was killed in a fiery car crash on the same day her dog was slated to be euthanized by a local veterinarian. Fisher’s parents had both their daughter and their chocolate Lab, Bosco, brought to Lain-Sullivan. The two buddies were cremated simultaneously.

Johnson has cremated llamas, birds, snakes, even a goldfish.

“People love their pets,” she said. “So we treat them with respect.”

At Kozy Acres pet cemetery and crematorium in Joliet, there are 40 to 65 cremations a week. Therese Piaza, who co-owns Kozy Acres with her ex-husband, Tom Gaura, said both private and group cremations are more popular than burial these days.

With private cremation, a pet’s remains are returned to the owner, either to be buried or kept. In communal cremation, pets are cremated in groups, with all the remains then scattered across the cemetery.

“It’s still dignified but less expensive,” Piaza said.

Some people, including Cheri Packard, of Shorewood, prefer a traditional burial. Packard has six dogs and one cat buried at Kozy Acres pet cemetery in Joliet.

“We had a wake and a funeral for all of them,” Packard said. “I just feel that’s the right thing to do.”

Kozy Acres, which opened in 1981, has 2,500 marked plots, many with headstones that include photos of the animals buried beneath them. Some feature statues of dogs, cats or of St. Francis, the patron saint of children and animals.

For those who simply can’t part with their animal friend, there is a third option: preservation.

Jil-Marie Williams and Dan Borchers, of Chicago, had their dachshund, Weezy, preserved last summer using a freeze-drying method offered at Don’s Taxidermy in Wilmington.

“We have her sitting on our dining room table right now,” Borchers said. “She still looks real.”

Williams and Borchers said their 7-year-old canine died unexpectedly.

“We never got to say goodbye,” Williams said.

At first they thought they would have her cremated. Burial, Borchers said, was not an option because the couple plan to move in the near future.

“All our friends and family asked, ‘What are you doing?’ But now they see how nice she turned out,” Borchers said. “I recommend it to everyone.”

The option, which calls for removing the internal organs and body fluids before freeze-drying in a position chosen by the client, is becoming increasingly popular, said Don Franzen, owner of Don’s Taxidermy.

Many taxidermists are reticent to mount a pet because it’s difficult to achieve an authentic look with an animal that a human is so familiar with. Freeze-drying, though more time-consuming and costly, can get those results.

“In the last two days, I’ve gotten six calls about it,” Franzen said.

Some requests come from as far away as Maine.

“It’s not for everybody,” he conceded.

Those who do choose it seem to enjoy having a lifelike preservation of their animal, he said.

The cost for freeze-drying is based on an animal’s weight. An 8- to 10-pound dog starts at about $550, Franzen said.

Most people approach him with the admission, “People think I’m crazy,” he said.

“But who is anyone to judge?” he said.

“Most of them cry when they come to pick up their pet,” he said.

Franzen, also a taxidermist, said working with pets requires a whole new approach to the preservation process, one that calls for sensitivity and people skills.

“It’s like being a mortician,” he said. “You have to listen to the people, hear their stories. It’s important.”

Williams and Borchers said they were impressed by the personal touch Franzen and his wife extended.

“It was so personable,” Borchers said. “We’re very happy with the result. It’s like you don’t really have to say goodbye.”

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