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Funerals for Furry Friends

Cremation for cats, memorials for budgies-the rise of animal aftercare.

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Funerals for Furry FriendsIllustration by Ameesha Lee

Helen Hobbs is not surprised when a woman bursts through the door 15 minutes early for her appointment. It is a warm spring morning, and the woman is holding a dead beagle, its grizzled nose peeking out from a white blanket. Within seconds, she begins to sob-“My baby, my baby”-and Hobbs takes her by the shoulder. After 11 years in this business, she is used to seeing people come untethered by the death of an animal. She has helped arrange elaborate funeral services; she has witnessed leather-skinned men cry as they tell their dogs not to worry, they’ll be together again soon.

Hobbs runs Pets at Peace, a memorial and funeral service in Toronto. Like her clients, she believes animals deserve respect and dignity in their afterlife care. That means no mass cremation or burial. For fees ranging from $215 to $400, depending on the size of the animal, Hobbs ensures your pet is individ­ually cremated and promptly returns the remains to you in an oak, cedar or ceramic vessel. For around $500, you can attend the cremation, formally say goodbye and go home with the ashes.

If you wish, Hobbs can “restore” a pet that has been hit by a car or help you arrange a viewing in your home. No matter what service you choose, she will also provide something else: validation for your grief. Poised and austere, right down to her chic silk scarf, brunette bob and silver lapel pin, she is so professional, so reassuring that she immediately erases any doubt a person may feel about planning a funeral for a hamster. “This is not a fly-by-night operation,” says Hobbs. “The same care and respect that I would give your mother or father, I will give to your pet.”

Hobbs is no stranger to death. As a licensed funeral director (for humans), she started thinking about pet services after a veterinary clinic lost the ashes of a close friend’s cat-and then mysteriously found them six weeks later. “I thought, Oh, my goodness, that can’t be how it’s done,” she says. “There has to be a better way.” Vets are experts in the business of keeping animals healthy and alive, but they are also stuck with the responsibility of making cremation arrangements when one dies. To Hobbs, this is like letting a hospital plan your mother’s funeral. Sensing she could fill the gap, she entered the world of pet funerals.

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Her timing was perfect. While dog and cat ownership in Canada has stayed steady at around 55 per cent in recent years, pet spending has exploded, rising from $4.5 billion in 2007 to $6.6 billion in 2013. “I knew the industry was huge,” says Marybeth Haines, a grief consultant and the author of The Power of Pets: 7 Effective Tools to Heal From Pet Loss. “But I did not realize it was monstrously huge.” To Haines, the industry’s growth reflects the changing way we treat our four-legged companions-a profound shift from guard dog to spoiled child. Across the country, Canadians are shelling out for pricey organic food, luxury boarding facilities and studio-quality portraits. There are dog-focused magazines and animal first aid classes.

Hobbs has been so successful that she plans to license the Pets at Peace name and model to other funeral directors. As the pet loss industry expands, it is starting to formalize, setting standards through the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance (PLPA). Founded in 2009 as a branch of the largest international organization for the human funeral industry, the United States-based PLPA now has 325 American and 13 Canadian member companies. It estimates that there were at least 1.9 million pet funerals in 2012.

Hobbs herself dotes on four pets: a 14-year-old Shih Tzu (Parker) and three cats (Cyprus, Calvin and Murphy). She says the current vogue for animal memorials is less a new trend and more a revival; in the death-obsessed Victorian era, for instance, pet cemeteries were abundant. “You read some of those headstones-those pets were as close and the loss was as great as it is today,” she says.

Evidence of that closeness is all around her in the Pets at Peace “arrangement office.” In the corner, there is an array of customizable gravestones. The glass cases display dozens of different urns, as well as heart- and paw-shaped pendants made to hang from your neck or key chain. Once, Hobbs says, a couple bought a large plaque in memory of a street dog they had cared for in the Caribbean, where they spent part of the year. They wanted to place a marker in the parking lot the dog called home.

© By Lauren McKeon. The Walrus (September 2014).