New Mexico's Pet Resource SUMMER 2006


by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

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The veterinarian shuts the door quietly as she leaves the house. My beautiful greyhound Timber lies still across my lap. His body, ravaged by cancer, is at peace now, free from pain. Outside my husband and son are digging Timber’ s grave in a circle of juniper trees. I choose a soft, old comforter as Timber’s burial shroud. I spread it out beside his body. When my husband comes in, he helps me lift Timber onto the cloth. We fold his legs into the curled fawn position he preferred for sleep. I remove his collar and kiss him on the head. We wrap him tightly, ready now for his place in the burial ground.

When our companion animals die, we are overcome with loss and grief. The task of making provisions for the body must be tended to immediately, yet everyone dreads the task. Decisions about the disposition of the body are better thought out before the need arises. Understanding the options for your beloved dog’s remains enable you to make an informed choice when the time comes, one that meets your emotional comfort level, living situation, and finances.

The two primary options for the disposition of the body are burial and cremation. Within each option, a wide variety of services are available. Costs vary from free to more than $1000 depending on the arrangements.

Burial: Burials involve some form of placing the body in a grave dug into the ground. Some people prefer to bury their companion animals in their yards. Municipal or county regulations may exist for burial on private property. Such regulations are usually a matter of public health and safety. The Santa Fe County ordinance on dead animals (Dead Animals, 8-1 A of Ordinance # 1991-6: Animal Control) instructs that “within twenty-four (24) hours of the death of an animal, the owner shall dispose of the carcass by burial at least three (3) feet underground in a suitable location.” The depth helps to prevent the spread of disease and keeps other animals from digging up the interred body. Lining the top of the grave with rocks, especially if it is in an unattended area and not in a yard, will further deter intruders.

A burial can be as simple as wrapping your dog in a comforter and placing him in a grave in your own backyard. Caskets are not required, but are a matter of personal choice. Caskets can run from $20 upwards toward $1000 depending on the size needed for the deceased animal, and the materials used to make and line the coffin. Although they are not a common option, some areas do have pet cemeteries. Along with the actual burial, additional services similar to human funerals are often available.

Cremation: Cremation is a viable alternative to burial and has some major advantages. When your dog is cremated, the body is consumed by intense heat, reaching an average of 1600 degrees F. It takes one to two hours for the complete cremation of a forty pound dog. What remains are bone fragments, not ashes, that are processed to a fine powder. These remains are returned to the animal’s guardian in an urn or decorative tin provided as part of the cremation service. Basic cremation packages start around $50. The costs increase depending on the type of cremation and additional options such as specialty urns.

There are three options for cremation based on whether your dog is alone or with other pets in the cremation unit. In a communal cremation, your pet will be placed in the cremation unit with other pets. There is no attempt to separate the cremated remains. Best Friends Pet Services in Albuquerque scatters the remains from communal cremations in the Zuni Mountains. Some crematories will return a portion of the mix remains to pet owners. If you leave your pet at your veterinary clinic with no specific instructions for cremation or if you prefer not to receive the cremated remains, the communal cremation is the usual option. Communal cremation is also the least expensive option. With separated cremation, your dog’s body is placed in the cremation unit with a few other animals. Each animal’s body is physically separated using either a metal tray for small animals or concrete spacers for larger animals. When the cremation is complete, the remains of each individual animal are carefully removed, and placed into separate urns and returned to the animals’ guardians. With individual cremation, your dog is the only one in the cremation unit, and it is the most expensive option. People who are fearful that the returned remains may not be those of their canine companions often choose individual cremation.

According to John Pitchford of Best Friends Pet Services, trust is the biggest concern to people choosing cremation. They want to be assured that the remains they receive back are their very own pets. At Best Friends, each animal is given an ID number that stays with the animal throughout the entire process so there is no chance of error. John suggests visiting the crematory you are considering. A reputable crematory is not offensive. There are no bodies lying about, and no odor at all. You can talk with the staff in the office area or visit the entire facility, whatever fits your comfort level. You can see for yourself where your dog’s body will be taken and make the best choices for you and your animal. The staff understands your grief and is there to help make the process as easy as possible. You can express your fears and they will help you choose options that will allay your concerns. To further establish trust, reputable crematories belong to the International Association Of Pet Cemeteries & Crematories. The organization sets the industry standards for ethical service.

The advantages of cremation are many. The remains of a forty-pound dog are less that one cup, and weigh about one pound. When the urn of cremated remains is returned to you, you have the option of keeping the remains in your home. If you choose to bury the remains, they will take up much less space than a non-cremated body, an advantage if you have a small yard. You can scatter the remains at a place your dog particularly enjoyed, like a lake or a favorite hiking trail. If you move, you can take the remains with you. Cremated remains can be separated and put into two urns if more than one person wishes to receive the remains of a beloved dog.

Most animal clinics have established relationships with pet crematories and can be helpful in facilitating arrangements. Ask your veterinarian about the crematory with whom they work, how arrangements are made, and what it costs. If you prefer, you can take your dog’s body directly to the crematory of your choice. Most crematories provide pick-up service for the body whether from your animal clinic or your home.

In the end, it is your responsibility to decide on the disposition of your companion’s body. If you make no choice, you leave this decision to others who may not make decisions that you would want for your dog. The best course of action is to inform yourself about your options before you are faced with the decision in the throes of grief. Talk with your family, veterinarian, and the staff of the crematory or cemetery. Many web sites provide good information on pet burial and cremation. If you embrace the responsibility rather than fear it, the process is an opportunity to begin to heal your sadness and loss. You can choose a final resting place that your dog deserves and offers comfort to you.

The morning sky is a brilliant winter blue. We carry Timber’s body out to the burial ground and lower him carefully into the deep grave. We place white daisies over his body, each flower in gratitude for this loving and guileless old soul. We fill in the grave, packing down the soil as we go. We work steadily and quietly. Around and atop the mound we place rocks. It defines Timber’s resting place and keeps other animals from disturbing his peace. We share a moment of silence, then pick up the shovels and walk back to the house. From my kitchen window I can see Timber’s grave, and I know come spring, wildflowers will appear among the rocks.

Many thanks to the staff at Best Friends Pet Services in Albuquerque, NM (505-345-5615) for the tour of their facilities and for answering my numerous questions about cremation.

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator. She shares her home in Cerrillos with her husband, four rescued dogs (two greyhounds, two corgi/terriers) and three horses.

We give dogs time we can spare, space we can spare, and love we can spare. And in return they give us their all.
It’s the best deal anyone ever made. – M. Packham

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