Owners being buried with pets, sometimes in pet cemeteries

Illustration: SUE SYRNICK / Staff Artist, Photographs: istockphoto.com
Illustration: SUE SYRNICK / Staff Artist, Photographs: istockphoto.com
Posted: June 06, 2013

Elaine Braslow, a retired elementary schoolteacher, hopes to live a very long life. But whenever her time is up, she looks forward to spending eternity with her beloved cat, Cutee, and cherished dog, Bentley.

Although she and her husband currently have five dogs and four cats, it's those two - now dead and cremated - that she can't part with.

"I have the remains in the house," said the Cherry Hill resident. "My family has assured me that they will carry out my wishes to place them in my coffin."

Braslow and her husband already have prepaid plots in a cemetery in North Jersey. "It's also very important to me to be buried with my dad and other relatives," she said. With her cat and dog, the whole family will ultimately rest together.

Braslow is not alone. About 62 percent of U.S. households own pets, spending more than $55 billion on them annually, an amount that reflects pets' status as family members. For some owners, that means sharing a cemetery plot.

"It's a growing trend," said Coleen Ellis, cochair of the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance (PLPA). "I wish I had a dime for every time I heard someone say, 'You know I love the pet more than I love my husband, wife, brother, sister.' . . . As the nuclear family has changed, the human-animal bond has increased significantly, so when we consider our final resting place, many pet parents say they want to be with them."

In most cases, state law prohibits burying pets in human cemeteries, said Poul Lemasters, a funeral director and lawyer who consults in the death-care profession. Yet funeral directors allow discretion when it comes to placing personal objects in people's coffins. "They will tell you 'not a day goes by when I don't put an urn of an animal into the casket of a human being secretly for a family,' " Ellis said. "So, while it's been going on for a very long time, the trend is becoming more recognized where people are getting permission to do it."

Demand for joint burials is such that people are now being buried in pet cemeteries - where human cremains can be buried. "Cremation is deemed the final disposition for people, so the family can do whatever they want with those cremated remains," explained Debra Bjorling, owner of Hamilton Pet Meadow Memorial Park and Crematory in Hamilton, N.J.

The Hamilton pet cemetery began burying human cremains alongside their pets about eight years ago, when Bjorling was approached by two sisters whose mother's last wish was to be buried with her pets.

"They told me she liked pets more than people," Bjorling said.

After a graveside ceremony that included a spiritual service, the box containing the cremains of the woman and the two boxes with her pet remains were buried side by side.

For customers it makes economic sense: Hamilton charges by the plot, not the soul. Body burials (the body of the pet and the cremains of the owner) are $1,650; burying the cremains of pet and owner costs $500, which includes perpetual care fees.

Bjorling suggests that people interested in being buried in pet cemeteries do their homework first: A perpetual care fund requires the cemetery always be maintained, and a deed restriction assures the bodies buried will never be disturbed. Pennsylvania and New Jersey law requires both for cemeteries.

If you want to spend eternity with your pet without being cremated, Hillcrest Memorial Park in Hermitage, Pa., is one of the few places in the country legally able to bury humans and pets together. (Pet cemeteries like Hamilton can bury only cremains.) Originally a human cemetery, its operators applied for a license to add a pet cemetery, which opened in 2007, and that led to the creation of a third section that same year allowing for the burial of pets and humans together.

"The city adjusted the definition of a cemetery to a place for the burial of humans and/or pets," said Tom Flynn, Hillcrest president and devoted dog owner. "The light just went off in my head. This is really where we feel the market is."

Longer than a standard grave, these plots are 3 feet by 10 feet. If the pets die first, they will be buried under the grave marker. "Once the person passes away and is buried, we can also put two more pets into the same grave on top of the person," Flynn explains. "For someone who, over the period of time, has had a lot of pets, we can accommodate them whether they be in the grave with the person or in a contiguous grave."

Roberta "Birdie" Barkovich and her sister, Ramona Vargo, both plan to be buried near their beloved pets. "My sister is going to be buried next to our three collies who are buried in Hillcrest's people and pet section right now," explained Barkovich, who lives in nearby Farrell, in northwestern Pennsylvania. "I'm going to be buried in the people section next to my parents, not too far from the dogs."

The dogs were not cremated - each body was wrapped in a blanket in its own casket with pictures of family members inside. "We had a viewing for Glory and Noah, mother and son collies who died three days apart," Barkovich said. "We were able to go in and say goodbye to them before they were buried."

Despite the recession, Flynn said burials (and presales) have grown from about two per month to 10 since 2007. By the end of this year, he estimates he will have taken care of a total of at least 700 families.

Considering that burial rates are declining, that's good business. "For us, 20 years ago the human cremation rate was approximately 10 percent, and today it's over 40 percent," Flynn said. A recent study by PLPA found that 99 percent of pets are cremated today, while only 1 percent are buried. So burying pets and people together, for which plots cost $795 to $995, adds a new revenue stream.

Although some cemeteries are too old to have their codicils changed, newer cemeteries are taking notice. Already a trendsetter in the cemetery business as Pennsylvania's first green cemetery, Penn Forest Natural Burial Park in Verona, Pa., near Pittsburgh, is preparing to open a new section for the burial of people with their pets. Green burials don't use formaldehyde-based embalming or burial vaults.

"People who want a green burial seem to like animals and are interested in pet burial," reasoned owner Peter McQuillin. "Combining the idea of environmentally friendly with pet burial will make us the first green cemetery for burying pets."

Obviously, it's a trend with legs. Yet whatever the kind of burial, the foundations for the movement are the same. People want to be buried with their loved ones.

Sisters Barkovich and Vargo married their husbands seven years ago when they were in their early 50s. "We never had children and we loved our animals like they were our children," Barkovich said.

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