Ashes to Ashes
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there - I do not sleep.
I am the thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints in snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
As you awake with morning's hush
I am the swift-up-flinging rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there - I did not die.
- Mary Frye (written in 1932)
A seasoned veterinarian recently wrote in an article entitled, “A Vet’s Personal and Horrific Story,” of his experience accompanying his sister to another veterinarian’s office to have her dog Monte euthanized. Almost before Monte took his last breath, the offending veterinarian headed for the door, leaving the author and his grieving sister with Monte’s body and no idea what to expect next. When would he be taken out of the room? If his sister chose to have Monte cremated, who would cremate him and where? When would his ashes be ready? Would they just be his ashes, or would they be combined with the ashes of other beloved companions?
Aside from the seemingly heartless behavior of the veterinarian who performed Monte’s euthanasia, this story raises an equally and arguably more important issue - what to do with a companion animal’s sacred remains. Just as with human family members, these decisions are highly personal and can be critical in grieving and healing journeys. Learning about available options now has the potential to avoid making decisions clouded by emotion and regret when a companion animal dies, especially under unexpected circumstances. Considerations may include personal and family needs, religious beliefs and economic resources.
I recall early on as a child orchestrating with my friends backyard funerals for goldfish found floating in their bowls and tiny winged creatures found lying outside on the ground. Without adult direction, we knew the reverence of the occasion. And despite our immature faith, we invoked God’s presence with crosses made of from broken sticks, tied together with blades of grass and carefully planted in mounds of dirt under which the shoe box bearing our companion’s remains was buried.
Burying remains is an ancient human practice and, as it turns out, a rite shared by other species. Elephant and badgers do the same with their fallen companions. It is one of the most common methods for caring for a companion’s body after death. For homeowners who have sufficient land and are not restricted by local regulations, burial at home offers a good choice. Not only is it economical, but it can provide a literal sense of remaining near. For others who move frequently or whose homes are located in places in which animal burial is prohibited, designated pet cemeteries offer a permanent resting place for companion animals. In West Michigan, there are two pet cemeteries, each of which has served the community for a number of years - Noah’s Pet Cemetery & Pet Crematory and Sleepy Hollow Pet Cemetery.
Just as with humans, there are casket and headstone choices. Some prefer plastic, non-biodegradable options, while others prefer wooden - from simple to ornate - materials. (ADD David Dennett, Wood Artisan). Similarly, headstones are available in a number of materials.
For many, cremation - a word just one letter away from creation - is the preferred choice. If your companion animal dies naturally at home, you can take her body to a pet crematory. If your companion dies at a veterinarian’s office or a veterinarian performs in-home euthanasia, the veterinarian can transport the body. Costs vary depending on the weight of your companion animal and whether you choose private, semi private or communal cremation. With private cremation, your companion animal’s ashes, or cremains, are returned to you. Some crematories offer semi private cremation in which more than one companion is placed in the crematory (but in separate places, so the ashes do not commingle) at the same time. Again, your animal’s cremains are returned to you. With communal cremations, several animals are cremated together, and all cremains are buried on the cemetery grounds.
As for what to do with your beloved companion’s cremains, the options are endless. Bury them in your yard - maybe where your companion kept his treasures. Scatter them in a special place - maybe in the lake in which he stood quietly watching tiny fish dart in and around his paws. Place a lot of them in an urn or some other container. A girlfriend recently shared with me how her grandpa carried the ashes of his corgi from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula and back every summer. Wendy rode shotgun in her urn. Use them to make jewelry or stones or sun catchers. There is even an artist who will use the ashes to paint your companion’s portrait.
In recent years, a third option has become available for companion animals - taxidermy using freeze-dry technology, the cost of which may be determined by contacting individual companies who provide this specialized service.
Memorial and Funeral Services
Animals have long been integral parts of our families and are increasingly so. Current statistics indicate 72.9 million homes — 62% of U.S. households — own a companion animal, up from 56% in 1988, according to the American Pet Products Association. The death of a companion animal is often the first loss suffered by children and greatest loss suffered by adults. And yet, memorial and funeral services for the dead, for the most part, have not extended to our non-human companions. Prayer concerns rarely, if ever, include companion animal issues. Casseroles are rarely delivered. Cards are rarely sent. When an animal dies, many expect the grief journey to be over quickly with a resumption of normal routine almost immediately. Many inquire, with good intentions and as if animals are fungible, “When are you going to another dog?” There is an unspoken notion that other burdens are more deserving of prayer and outward shows of compassion.
A memorial or funeral service offers an opportunity to give voice to deep feelings of loss and offer words of comfort to an animal’s human companions, as well as to honor the deceased and celebrate his or her life. It can be formal or informal, outside or at an inside chapel, with or without an officiant and with or without religious foundation.
Other Memorial Options
There are a multitude of other simple, yet meaningful, memorial options. Some have the name of their animal tattooed on their body, Others were their dogs’ tags. Some keep a paw print or a clipping of hair. Others write an on-line tribute, plant a tree, contribute to animal protection organization or commission a portrait (U.K. artist Sam Dolman’s work is exceptional).
For those for whom down to earth options just will not do (and, in most case, money is no object), there are several options. Celestis will send your companion on a mission into space, launch her into orbit around the Earth, place her on the lunar surface or send her off into deep space. Holy Smoke, a company founded by two law enforcement officers, will place your companion’s cremains into almost any caliber or gauge of ammunition. Eternal Reefs combines concrete and your companion’s ashes to cast and create a reef in the ocean where they become habitats for marine life. Chicago-based Life Gems will turn your companion into a diamond pendant. Angels Flight offers choreographed fireworks displays. Memory Glass infuses your companion’s ashes within layers of hand-blown glass to create a memorial item. Blue Sky Goodbye will take your companion on a final sky dive and scatter their ashes 11,000 feet above ground. And Eternal Ascent Society will put your companion’s ashes in a helium balloon that, upon reaching an altitude of approximately five miles, crystallizes and fractures, causing the ashes to scatter.