A Pet Owner's Final Choice

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008

One morning last week, Kerry LeBoyer of Silver Spring discovered that her 2-year-old cat, Tuxedo, had died during the night. She gently wrapped his body in a towel and drove to Heavenly Days Animal Crematory, in a small industrial complex off Rockville Pike.

On Friday, a teenage girl made her way alone by train and Metro from Baltimore to Rockville, clutching a pink pet carrier that held her dead Chihuahua.

That same day, other grieving owners arrived -- with a guinea pig, a parakeet, two rats -- all seeking solace and finality for a beloved companion.

Since 1979, Heavenly Days owner Linda Buel has respectfully tended to the sad business of providing personalized cremations for dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, canaries and other pets, including the occasional boa constrictor and piranha. The ashes are returned to grieving owners in hand-carved wooden boxes that are wrapped in ribbon and topped with flowers. A clipping of the pet's hair is optional.

Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, used Buel's services when their 10-year-old yellow Lab, Dave, died this month.

"If you lost a special member of your family, you would want a special fond farewell to them," says LeBoyer, who has had five animals cremated at Heavenly Days. "This is the place to be at a time of loss."

Along with other products and services targeting devoted pet owners in this country, the business of individual pet cremations is growing. In 2007, pet spending in the United States topped $41 billion, almost double the $21 billion spent in 1996, according to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association. And more owners want to give their pets the utmost care in death, as in life.

"Five or 10 years ago, it was only a handful of people who were paying for services like individual cremations," says Bob Vetere, the association's president. "People have humanized pets to such a degree that they are doing almost everything to pets that they do for humans. I am waiting for pet wakes in the future."

Heavenly Days ( http://www.heavenlydays.com) is one of a few businesses in the Washington area providing individual animal cremations. Buel says that when she began her business, almost 30 years ago, she handled one or two cremations a week. These days, she does 50 to 60 a week, about 2,800 a year. At any given time, she may have 50 animals waiting to be cremated.

She has built her business on compassion. "I have tried to create my own little niche here of good service and respect for people and animals," says Buel, 64. "I make people part of the process. It's not like their pet goes off to some abyss someplace and comes back in a box." Some clients want to be part of the process all the way to the end, even witnessing the cremation.

When a pet dies, owners face choices. According to the Web site of the International Association of Pet Cemeteries & Crematories, local ordinances determine whether pets can be buried on home turf. Several pet cemeteries in the Washington area offer burial services, and several have pet crematories. Veterinarians can arrange for cremation, or pet owners can contact a crematory directly. An animal can be cremated individually, with costs based on the weight of the pet, starting at about $150; "communal" cremations run from about $40 to $100.

Lashon Seastrunk, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Health, says residents can take deceased pets to the D.C. Animal Shelter, where they will be incinerated as medical waste at no charge. Also, the shelter will hold the body of a pet while the owner makes arrangements for a private or group cremation. Other local shelters have their own policies and procedures.

Heavenly Days contracts with a few veterinary offices to perform occasional communal cremations; Buel says she scatters those ashes at a nearby farm or in the Chesapeake Bay.

Jen Turner, practice manager of Kenwood Animal Hospital in Bethesda, says about 60 percent of the clients in her practice choose individual cremations; at Seven Locks Animal Hospital in Potomac, a spokeswoman said the number is more like 85 percent. Holly Zepp, office manager of Collins Memorial Hospital for Animals in Georgetown, says the vast majority of clients there choose the individual route. Zepp herself has a dozen of Buel's carved wooden boxes holding the ashes of her cats, lizards, dogs and rats (she calls it a "shelf cemetery") stacked under her TV.

Grieving for departed pets is more accepted in today's culture. "People don't snicker like they did even 10 years ago," says Arden Moore, author of 19 books on cats and dogs. "Pets are woven into our society, and there is more understanding of the human-and-animal bond."

There are pet loss hotlines, chat rooms for people who have lost pets and Web sites such as http://www.petloss.com, which is privately run, and http://www.aplb.org, run by the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement.

Robyn Zeiger, a professional counselor in Maryland, encourages clients to talk through their grief. "Animals give us this bright light in our lives that, very often, people just can't give you," Zeiger says. "And when you have a being that is totally dependent on you, it heightens your sense of responsibility to it."

Buel also offers comfort and counsel to grieving owners. "I tell people to sit down by themselves with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee and write a few lines about what this animal meant to you." The stories she hears can be piercingly sad. She recalls a 95-year-old man with tears in his eyes who brought in a dead parrot years ago. "This parrot had been by his side for 75 years," Buel says. "It was a scarlet macaw that outlived the man's wife and children."

Buel grew up in Bethesda in a family that loved boxers, and she worked as a teacher before realizing that animals were her calling. In 1978, she opened a pet hotel in Rockville. The next year, when Montgomery County shut down its crematorium for animals, she decided to start her business.

Heavenly Days is just off Rockville Pike, next to the Montgomery County Humane Society shelter. A discreet bone-shaped sign on the door directs clients inside, where Buel's 17-year-old cat, Janet, two Shih Tzus and a black Lab are sleeping amid the clutter of a 29-year-old business. A white shopping bag on the counter labeled "Scruffy" is ready for pickup.

The phone rings constantly. "Sometimes I talk to people 20 times before we get their pets home," Buel says. "Lots of times, people call before their animal is even dead, just to find out how it all works." Fees are based on weight, with dogs and cats up to 15 pounds priced at $160 (a 200-pound dog is $360) and small animals such as hamsters and iguanas at $40 to $50. There are extra charges for expedited service or for those who want to witness the cremation. Paw print impressions in a frame are $45.

There are many repeat customers. One is Nancy Cole, whose cat Fuzzy Buttons, 19, had to be euthanized last week. Cole asked that Buel cremate Fuzzy in his favorite basket with his blue blanket, with red and yellow roses arranged inside. "I was devastated," says Cole, who previously had another cat cremated at Heavenly Days. "But having Linda was like having your best friend around."

Just one thing bothers Buel. "I do everything I can possibly do for them," she says. "But I just can't bring them back."

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