People often describe their pets as best friends or part of the family. That attitude is evident when a pet owner chooses to have a funeral, cremation or burial ceremony to memorialize an animal companion. KOSU’s Nikole Robinson Carroll has this look at how an increasing number of people say “goodbye” to their non-human friends.
K9 Edy’s flag-draped casket sits on the back of an Oklahoma County Sheriff’s open-air cart as an officer eulogizes him at Precious Pets Cemetery in Spencer.
Fellow officers, including other dogs, look on. The K9s are very vocal throughout the service, rivaled only by the wind, until the familiar first notes of Taps fill the air… then they fall silent.
Corporal Scott Novotny with the K9 Division of the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office says all of Oklahoma County’s K9 handlers are given the opportunity to honor their partners with a service when the time comes, and most of them take it.
“You depend on them to protect you in dangerous situations,” Novotny says. “It’s an overwhelming bond and the loss of an animal that you’ve developed that relationship with is pretty serious.”
Precious Pets Cemetery has an entire section devoted to police and military working dogs, but manager Robert Erdman says since his family opened it in the 1980s, all types of animals have been laid to rest here, and he’s seen a big shift in attitudes toward grieving a lost pet.
“A lot of people, like in the early ‘80s, were real confused about, you know, ‘why would we be here?’ and ‘why are they crying?’” Erdman explains. “You know, it is like your family members. Pets will give you unconditional love.”
With these societal changes, the pet memorial industry has expanded in lots of ways, including cremation. Wade Jackson owns and operates Pet Memories, a company that offers cremation services to the Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas. Jackson comes from a background in the human funeral business and holds his pet crematory to the same standards.
“My objective was we were going to operate like a funeral home,” Jackson remembers. “We were going to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We’d go to the home.”
Jackson says the loss of an animal can be just as painful as the loss of a human, and the need for closure through a burial or cremation can be very real.
“Of course, you get people that say, ‘I’d never spend my money on a pet,’” Jackson remarks. He adds, “Well, they don’t have pets or haven’t lost a pet… ‘cause that’s a pretty macho thing to say when your kids are upset or your wife’s upset or your husband or you. Emotions might dictate a whole different course.”
The process of coming to terms with the loss of a companion animal can be made even more complicated by old age, severe injury or terminal illness. The decision to euthanize a pet is never easy, but sometimes better communication with the pet itself can make it less difficult.
Dr. Andrew Hanzlicek with Oklahoma State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine offers this advice: “For folks that have a more difficult time of knowing when, one thing I’ve used that is helpful is that I just ask them, what are the 3 activities that their pet enjoys most? And when they can’t do 2 of those 3 activities, it may be time. That can help somebody make the decision and say, ‘Yeah; you know, their quality of life isn’t what they deserve and it’s not going to get better.’”
Dr. Tamara Smith works with the Oklahoma-based branch of the organization Pet Loss At Home. She provides in-home euthanasia services for aged and ailing companion animals. She says saying “goodbye” in this way offers a low-stress opportunity for the family to say a meaningful farewell and bond in the final moments, whether they are filled with grief or joy.
“I went out to a household to euthanize a small dog,” Dr. Smith recalls. “The owners were loving on her and petting on her, and then they started just telling these incredible stories and they were laughing. It was very lighthearted, but they were still honoring her passing. There was just something about their manner that was so lovely and I thought, ‘My goodness! What a wonderful home to have been in for this dog.’”
Simply put, every person’s emotional journey during and after a loss is different. Regardless of circumstances or arrangements, the bereaved need the patience and support of the people around them on their path toward letting go and healing. The ones they’ve lost might be gone, but their love lives on.
KOSU would like to thank Dr. McArthur Hafen with Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Donna Bethune with the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories for consultation on this story.