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.
Copyright 2009, Chicago Tribune