So Long, Old Friend
Service set in memory of lost pets

Losing a pet is losing a loved one. And for many people, the grieving process can take just as long as losing a family member or friend.

Offering a safe environment for people to mourn the pets that have brightened their lives is the idea behind the pet memorial service, Paws to Remember, 10 a.m. Saturday 8 May 2010 at Central Center in Centennial Park, 1028 E. Sixth St.

“There aren’t a lot of places for people to be open about the lost of a pet,” said the Rev. Taylor McNac, a veterinarian and hospice chaplain. “I’ve seen how a memorial can be a place of healing and encouragement from others — a place where you can find understanding.”

Taylor McNac has envisioned a citywide pet memorial for years and contacted the Oklahoma Animal Alliance to help organize the event. She is the creator of Pet Peace of Mind, a program for hospice patients and pets, and sees first hand the joy that pets bring to people with terminal illnesses.

“I knew that we are a significant pet-loving place in Tulsa,” she said.

The hour-long interfaith service, led by Taylor McNac, will include a candle lighting ceremony and a pet memorial
slide show.

“But it’s also a day to make a statement and stand up for pets with no voice,” said Jamee Suarez-Howard, founder and president of Oklahoma Alliance for Animals. “We also want to remember all the abandoned, abused and neglected animals, as well as pets that died in shelters and rescues that didn’t have homes. We can’t save them all, but we can show our support for them as a community of pet loving people.”

Often when someone is experiencing a pet loss they are afraid of being ridiculed.

“As a culture we are entering a new phase where pets are moving from being outside and distant to being family members — that’s changing,” Taylor McNac said. “But there’s still a significant part of our culture who doesn’t understand the bond of a pet to a person, and they might minimize the experience (of losing a pet).”

It’s important to find a safe place to express grief and loss, she said.

“Find a safe friend or family member who understands, and be wise about sharing with people who will criticize you,” she said.

Sometimes writing down your feelings helps, whether it’s through letters, poetry or blogs, she said.

“Just talking about it helps. Like with any other loss, they can become physically ill over time by not expressing it,” she said.

Therapeutics service dogs will on hand to provide support and comfort to attendees, as well as pet loss grief counselors.

Kim Brown 581-8474

By Gerry Smith – Tribune reporter – October 26, 2009

About once a month, Carl and Ann Christoff visit the cemetery where Mindy and Buttons are buried.   As Carl clips and sweeps grass around their graves, his wife uses vinegar to wash bird droppings off the marble headstones. Before they go, they leave decorations: flowers, an angel statue or a small Christmas tree. This is no ordinary burial ground. Mindy and Buttons, two Shih Tzus who died in 1990 and 2005, are among more than 15,000 pets — including dogs, cats, deer, lizards, turtles, rodents, monkeys and a 3-foot shark — buried in Hinsdale Animal Cemetery in Willowbrook, one of the nation’s oldest.

To the Christoffs, of Oak Brook, these were no ordinary pets. “At one time, every one of the animals meant so much and brought so much joy into one’s life,” Ann Christoff said. Just how much they meant to their owners is evident from the epitaphs. “Our Dear Pet,” “Gentle Giant” and “Loyal Friend” are common headstone inscriptions. A mausoleum adorned with a dog sculpture reads: “He gave up his life that a human might live. Greater love hath no man.” “You walk through and read the inscriptions on the headstones and some will make you laugh, some will make you cry and some will make you think,” said Bill Remkus, whose family has owned the cemetery for four generations. “You can almost understand the story.”

Michael Schaffer, author of the book “One Nation Under Dog,” said he has noticed the messages on pet epitaphs have evolved over time, reflecting how many people have promoted their pets to “full-fledged members of the family.” “If you visit old pet cemeteries, the oldest headstones might say ‘Here lies Fido, a loyal servant,’ or ‘Here lies Fido, man’s best friend,'” said Schaffer. “Nowadays it’s ‘My little girl,’ or ‘Mommy and Daddy miss you.’

People have developed a conception of their pets as children. That is quite a dramatic development.” Remkus said he did not think the feelings people have for their pets have changed, but instead, modern society has become more accepting of people who love their pets and consider them family. “Years ago, if you buried your pet in a pet cemetery it would be seen as eccentric,” he said. “That’s not how it’s seen today. Now it is just another way to memorialize.” Hinsdale is not a celebrity pet cemetery, although guide dogs for blind author Bernice Clifton of Oak Park, who died in 1985, are buried here. Rather,the cemetery that began in 1926 is a memorial to many pets who faithfully serve their owners. The cemetery offers a variety of funeral packages. For about $50, pet owners can purchase a “memorial cremation” — in which a pet’s ashes are mixed with those of other pets and scattered across the cemetery grounds. For about $2,000, they can buy an oak casket with a vault and marble headstone.

Despite the recession, business at Hinsdale Animal Cemetery has remained steady, although Remkus’ son, Jonathan, has noticed more “memorial cremations,” which he said are “a more economical way for a pet to still be taken care of in a reverent manner.” Still, when it comes to finding a proper burial for man’s best friend, money is usually not a factor. “People who are going to take care of their pets are going to do so, whether or not they are employed or unemployed,” Jonathan Remkus said. Or if they just spent more than $7,000 on medical bills trying to save their pet’s life, as Ernie Yamich did this summer.

Despite the high costs of sending Bogart, his 11-year-old German shepherd, to the emergency room, Yamich said he did not think twice about spending $2,100 on funeral arrangements for “my first born.” “He was our baby,” said Yamich, 30, a heavy equipment operator in Chicago. “You wouldn’t do any less to a human, even in a recession.” While some owners are content to simply bury their pets at the cemetery, others go further. Several people have been buried with their pets at Hinsdale Animal Cemetery. And a few people who did not have pets buried there simply chose the cemetery as their final resting place “because they felt it was a happy place,” Jonathan Remkus said. Carol Szabo of Naperville spent $160 for a private cremation to ensure the ashes she received belonged to Teddy, her uncle’s beloved Shih-Tzu. Her family planned to mix Teddy’s remains with those of her uncle, Raymond Beranek, who died recently, then bury them at St. Casimir Catholic Cemetery in Chicago. “I’m trying to do right by my uncle and do right by the dog,” she said. Sometimes, it is easier to do so for the dog, like when it comes to cemetery maintenance, some owners say. When Joyce Koziel of Frankfort visited her grandparents’ graves this summer in Alsip, her brother had to use a weed whacker to uncover their gravestones, she said. On the other hand, the graves of her Labrador and a Labrador/terrier mix, Sweetness and Brandon, are in immaculate shape at Hinsdale Animal Cemetery, she said. “What gets me a little angry is the pet cemetery is in better shape than where my family is buried,” she said. While the owners of Hinsdale Animal Cemetery can be credited for this, the pristine condition of many headstones also may be due to regular visits from people like the Christoffs, who view washing the headstones of Buttons and Mindy as a way of giving thanks. “This is the reward they get from their owners for being great companions,” Ann Christoff said.

When Chiquita Isom’s German shepherd, Silla, died of a fast-growing heart tumor last year with almost no warning, Isom was inconsolable.

She knew she needed to do something to honor the loving dog she always called “my girl.” Days later, the Rev. Pat Boone, in black robe and long shawl patterned with dogs and cats, arrived at Isom’s home. Near an altar with pictures of Silla, her leash and toys, Boone conducted a funeral service before more than a dozen people — many of whom had met Silla and Isom at the park they frequented. Boone quoted Scripture, read poems and spoke of the unconditional love pets provide and the importance of saying goodbye. “It helped me with closure and with the support I needed to get through the loss,” says Isom, a nurse practitioner.

Devoted pet owners are increasingly holding ceremonies that pay tribute to pets and provide the humans with an endpoint that celebrates the good times and helps them re-frame their grief. In Atlanta, pet owners pay from “$495 for a casket, viewing, burial and headstone to $2,000 or $3,000” for various additional services, fancier caskets and the like, says Keith Shugart, the second generation of pet funeral tenders at Shugart’s Deceased Pet Care Funeral Home.

The family, headed by a licensed funeral director, has laid animals to rest for more than 40 years and has grown to three locations, with chapels, cemeteries, gazebo and other accouterments to comfort the pet owner. There’s even one area where pets and humans can be buried beside each other. Some of the funerals Shugart has handled consist of “a man, wife and child saying goodbye to their pet,” Shugart says; some draw 100 or more attendees. “People might bring a chaplain, or their own music and balloons. Some do readings. Each is unique. “We bounce ideas back and forth with the family to make sure they get exactly what they want.” In June, Shugart’s will open what’s billed as the nation’s largest pet funeral facility, including two chapels, a viewing area, a euthanasia room and an entrance foyer with fish pond and aviary.

Most ceremonies tend to be low-key. When Princess the poodle died last year in Jamestown, Ohio, her owner and 20 friends gathered at the pet cemetery, spoke lovingly of the dog and covered her casket with roses. The arrangements were handled by Michael Storer of Pet Dignity. “Most people like the ceremony to be simple,” he says. Of the 80 calls Storer handled last year, most involved simply transporting a deceased pet to a crematorium ($165 and up) or placing it in a casket ($299 and up), then returning the remains to the owner for burial on the property or at a cemetery (about $100).

But about 10 percent involved a parting ceremony. In those cases, Storer always reads “The Rainbow Bridge,” a well-known anonymous poem that promises pet and person will be reunited in death. Sometimes pictures are displayed; often people offer tributes. “Pets are with their people day in and day out, and the relationships are very meaningful,” he says. “It can be very important to some of them to have a service.” Casual funerals — usually conducted on the beach or another outdoors locale — are common on the Outer Banks, says Chris Stoessner, a licensed funeral director. He launched Outer Banks Pet Funerals and Cremations as a side business in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., in 2006.

Much of his business consists of picking up and transporting deceased pets to a crematorium two hours away, then delivering the remains in an urn to the family ($309 to $349). But for a fee, usually about $100, he’ll also tend to details of a ceremony, including hauling a podium to the site, setting up seating and placing the flowers. “Even in this economy, some people want to go the extra mile to commemorate their pet, and we do whatever helps them,” Stoessner says. Emotional release can come with a proper goodbye, Boone says: “The photo I have at the end of Silla’s service shows everyone smiling.