Pet Owners Choose Burial, Cremation, Memorials for Animals

October 1, 2009
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image Miss Kitty had a pretty tough start in life. A tiny stray calico kitten all alone in the world, she wandered onto a farm near Amana in 1990 where she was rescued by a kind-hearted stranger. From there her life improved significantly. The stranger passed her along to her co-worker, Todd Thelen of Iowa City, who took her in and gave her a home. Over the next 19 years, she enjoyed regular meals and afternoon naps in the sun. She got her ears scratched and a spot to sleep on the bed every night.

And when her kidneys failed last winter, Thelen and his partner, Eric Dean, took her to the vet and did the last thing they could for her: They stood by her side as she was euthanized. Talking about that day still brings tears to their eyes.

“We stayed with Miss Kitty during the whole procedure,” Dean said. “I think that’s important. They are in a strange place and they need your support. It’s the last thing you can do for them.”

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After Miss Kitty died, Thelen and Dean had her cremated. They intend to sprinkle her ashes this fall next to a tree they will plant in her honor. Thelen thinks a pussy willow would be an appropriate choice, but he’s also thinking about a redbud. That’s what the couple planted when their other cat, Choquali (an Algonquin word meaning “blackbird”), died eight years ago.

Both agree that a tree is a fitting way to remember a beloved pet.

“It’s about regeneration,” Thelen said. “In a way, they can live on. It just seems natural.”

“And every time we look out there, we’ll be reminded of them,” Dean added.

Options for remembrance

Stories like Miss Kitty’s are signs that the days of burying beloved pets in a shoebox in the backyard without ceremony are fading. As pets become more a part of people’s lives, owners want to provide those animals with fitting memorials that reflect their importance long after they’ve ceased chasing sticks and balls of string.

“People often come to us and say ‘No one else understands,'” said Tara Mott Helmsley of Faithful Companions in Coralville. “It’s not just a cat or a dog. To that person that animal might have been as important as a child or a friend. They are more than pets. They are members of the family.”

That’s why local funeral director Michael Lensing started Faithful Companions.

Managed by his son, Alex Lensing, and Mott Helmsley, the business offers everything from cremations to keepsake and memorial items to a pet loss support group. Since opening in October 2008, they have worked with about 100 people. While they primarily work with people who have lost cats and dogs, they’ve also worked with rabbit and chinchilla owners.

Alex Lensing said that today many people choose cremation for their pets. Cremation can either be private, where the pet is cremated alone, or communal. For private cremations, pet owners will receive their animal’s remains while that’s not the case with communal cremations. Instead, the remains are scattered on a farm near Iowa City in a “very dignified and respectful manner.”

Helmsley added that some pet owners even choose to be present at the start of their pet’s cremation.

“We’ve had people hold short memorial services before their pet is cremated,” Helmsley said. “We have no problem with that.”

Phil Michel, the owner of Memorials by Michel in Solon, said that the growing transience of modern society has changed the way pet owners choose to remember an animal. People who think they might be moving within a few years or those who are not allowed to bury animals in their backyard want to find a way to remember a pet that played an important role in their lives. Many pet owners purchase memorials that can be hung on the wall or placed in a garden.

“A lot of elderly people live in condos and they have no place to bury their pets when they die,” Michel said. “So they get them cremated. The plaque can hang on the wall next to the ashes as sort of an indoor memorial.”

Michel said that some people place stepping stones in their gardens or small rocks that have been inscribed with the pet’s name and the birth and death years.

And if people are having a hard time getting over the loss of a pet, there’s help there too. Faithful Companions’ pet loss support group, facilitated by Judy Gingerich, lets people talk about their animal with other people who understand what they are going through.

“When you lose a pet, people don’t think to ask how you’re doing,” Helmsley said. “But the loss can be overwhelming.”

As for Thelen and Dean, they said that planting a tree for Miss Kitty is their way of moving on. Over the next few weeks, they’ll select the one they want and then find the perfect spot. Unlike Choquali’s tree, however, this one may have to go in the front yard.

“Miss Kitty and Choquali hated each other until the day he died, so we can’t put them near one another now,” Thelen said with a laugh.

Source: Press Citizen

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