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Memorial Services For Pets


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Dear Ones,

I am pleased to share with all of you the following article, which appeared on the cover of the Arizona Living section of yesterday's Phoenix newspaper, The Arizona Republic:

Memorial services can help pet owners find closure

by Scott Craven - Jul. 2, 2009 12:00 AM

The Arizona Republic

This is what Tonya Bunce remembers from the funeral, the details still clear though months have passed: a peaceful Roxy - front legs wrapped around a Teddy bear with ears frayed from chewing - surrounded by loved ones, friends and much of the staff from the veterinarian's office.

After the chaplain's comforting words, others shared their favorite memories of Roxy as they said goodbye to the little Yorkie cut down in her prime.

For Bunce, who had no idea just weeks earlier that such a service was possible, it was a fitting tribute to a dog who had so touched her life in the 3 1/2 years Roxy had lived before being hit by a car.

On that Sunday afternoon in a quiet, candlelit room at Fairwinds Pet Memorial Services, Bunce felt closure for the first time.

"It was a blessing," Bunce said. "It was everything I needed."

A growing number of people are finding solace in services, ceremonies and memorials dedicated to recently deceased pets. Veterinarians once were asked to simply dispose of bodies, but owners now are spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to send furry loved ones off with respect and dignity.

Although viewings and memorials are relatively few at this point, those in the "pet aftercare" business say more and more owners are opting for funeral services mirroring those conducted for loved ones.

Because who's to say pets aren't loved ones?

A growing practice

According to a 2008 survey by American Pet Products Association, which tracks the pet industry, 39 percent of dog owners planned to make some sort of burial arrangements for their pets upon death, up from 26 percent in 2004. In addition, 23 percent planned to buy memorial stones, and 15 percent would buy urns for their pets' ashes. Four percent said they would buy grief books to record memories of the pets.

None of this surprises Mara Goebel, who leads a pet-grief group at Hospice of the Valley.

For years, owners suffered the death of their pets in silence, because if they dared share the depth of their sadness with a friend, odds are the reply would have been, "So? Get another dog (or cat, or bird, etc.)." Now people are realizing it's OK to grieve the death of a pet and to seek a caring shoulder on which to cry.

"Animals can take a deep place in our hearts," said Goebel, the hospice's bereavement office manager. "They offer us unconditional love."

The bond between pet and human companion is particularly strong among parents whose children have moved out or in adults who never had children, Goebel said. Their pets become their children, and their deaths can be traumatic.

And the grieving is as deep, as real, as if they had lost a beloved human family member. The dozen or so who attend Goebel's monthly grief sessions seek those who feel as they do about a lost pet, so they feel safe expressing the kind of sadness others associate only with the loss of a person.

Closure in the clouds

On a cloudless morning earlier this year, Lee Jones stood on the tarmac of Scottsdale Airport, blowing kisses to a four-seat Cessna rushing down the runway. She waved as it lifted into the air, taking Jones' spirits skyward.

Twenty minutes later, her cellphone chimed with an incoming text. That was the agreed-upon signal from pilot Jackie Tatelbaum, now high above Four Peaks. She was about to release the ashes of Katrina, Jones' 19-year-old cat, who three months earlier had been diagnosed with cancer.

The arrival of the text also meant it was time to read aloud Jones' handwritten tribute to Katrina. As discussed in a pre-flight meeting, Tatelbaum would speak the words in the air as the memorial was read on the ground.

Katherine Heuerman, a friend of Jones' who owns Pet and Animal Lovers Service, a pet mortuary, unfolded Jones' emotional testimony and solemnly read it aloud. Jones looked toward Four Peaks, where her cat's ashes were being scattered among the winds.

"This is a wonderful way to say goodbye," a tearful Jones said. "Katrina always loved the cold, loved to lie in the sun on winter days. Now she'll have her wish forever."

For Tatelbaum, it was less about the flight and more about the emotional journey of Katrina's owner.

That's why the certified flight instructor started Angel Wings Funeral Flights. Since incorporating a year ago, Tatelbaum has scattered pet ashes dozens of times, typically releasing them at about 3,000 to 4,000 feet, where prevailing winds can scatter them as far as 6 miles across (and yes, it is FAA-approved as long as dispersal occurs over unpopulated areas).

She was inspired by the loss of her own pet, Bessie, a dog that accompanied Tatelbaum everywhere. She could think of no better way to honor a close family member than sprinkling ashes from above, creating memorials across vast landscapes.

And as more people hear about Tatelbaum's service, she expects busier times ahead. She thinks her service is just starting to take off, and she is starting to hear from people with older pets who are planning on animal funerals.

Each week, Tatelbaum says, she receives a number of calls from owners asking about the memorial flights, as well as flowers, catering and even limo services.

"We're beginning to touch on something," she said. "It's not a trend, it's far more than that."

Memorializing the bond

For proof of the lasting impact of pet memorials, look no further than Heuerman, who founded PALS in 1986. Over the years, she has seen thousands of pets, from ferrets and birds to horses, each as beloved as the next.

When her Irish setter, Duffy, died, Heuerman was inspired to find a more humane way to deal with the death of a pet. She founded PALS so owners could make the same sort of funeral arrangements as they could for any loved one.

Heuerman remembers how common it was for owners to leave deceased pets at the vet's, trying not to think about what would happen with the remains.

At PALS, clients can spend quiet time with their pet in a private viewing room and watch the cremation process from start to finish (though few choose the latter option). Grief counseling also can be arranged.

"People want to show love and affection to their pets even in death," Heuerman said. "Memorializing helps draw closure and helps the life cycle start all over."

Those bringing their pets to Fairwinds Pet Memorial Services in Phoenix can arrange everything from simple cremations to a $4,000 funeral complete with chaplain, flowers and limousine to and from the service (although no one has ordered that package, manager Mary Rauchwarter said).

Rauchwarter, a former nurse, will groom and prepare the body for viewing, placing it on a favorite blanket, perhaps, and posing it with a favorite toy. Thanks to a large cooler that can preserve bodies up to 10 days, no embalming is necessary before services and cremations.

Business has been steady through the recession, Rauchwarter said, as Fairwinds on average conducts 25 cremations monthly and perhaps three viewings (quiet time with the pet) and one funeral (with minister, family and friends).

For a funeral or viewing, Rauchwarter often places flowers and candles around the room, suggesting that family members bring photos to place on magnetic boards. She also will arrange a meeting with the chaplain so owners can share something about their pets that can be part of the eulogy.

It can be as simple or as elaborate as the client would like, Rauchwarter said.

"It's about how much you love your pet," she said. "I've had people borrow money from Mom or do this with credit cards. For some without family or friends, pets replace family. And you want to treat them well in death."

With 18-month-old twins and a loving husband, Tonya Bunce had plenty of love in her life when Roxy was killed. But that didn't make the loss any easier, particularly because the accident happened right in front of her.

Bunce's vet suggested Fairwinds, and soon she sat down with the chaplain to share details about her Yorkie.

Bunce assisted in Roxy's prefuneral grooming, combing the Yorkie's hair into a ponytail and affixing it with a pink ribbon. And after the service, Bunce stayed behind to say her final goodbyes, wheeling Roxy into the cooler when she was finished.

"It was the closure I needed," she said. "Roxy was a big part of my life. I still miss her."

Bunce now keeps Roxy close, in a box that includes her ashes, collar and favorite toys. The box is on her nightstand, the last thing she sees each night before turning out the lights.

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