That night when his beloved Chuckie passed away -- when the vet said the ailing tan pug had taken a sudden turn for the worse and nothing more could be done -- Pio Masone felt crushing despair.
He carried his lifeless dog out of the animal hospital in Rockville and sat in his Jeep Cherokee, cradling the small body on his lap as his son Ian drove home. That evening last month, grief settled over the Masone clan like a heavy blanket. Never mind that Chuckie, strictly speaking, wasn't human: He was family all the same. And so arrangements were made.
Ten days later, on a stifling afternoon in rural upper Montgomery County, a two-car funeral procession eased into Sugarloaf Pet Gardens, where Chuckie, reposed in a linen-lined dog coffin, his little head resting on an embroidered pillow, would be committed to the earth. His grave, in the shade of a cherry tree, had been dug with care -- a neat, pug-size rectangle four feet deep, bordered by turflike outdoor carpeting laid for the burial service.
Clifford Neal showed the way. For about the 1,500th time in two decades -- since he quit farming, converted some of his land to an animal cemetery and became an undertaker for pets -- Neal, 89, led mourners into the graveyard, carrying the deceased this day in the back seat of his sky blue Lincoln Town Car.
As usual, he had seen to every detail.
Chuckie's headstone was on order from the quarry, an 8-by-16-inch slab of polished Georgia granite with a chiseled epitaph:
Thank you for the joy
You are loved and missed
It will lie flat atop his grave, like the headstones marking hundreds of other Sugarloaf plots.
And before the interment, an open-coffin viewing in a parlor at the cemetery office had allowed the mourners -- Masone, his wife, their two teenage sons and a teenage relative -- a final look at Chuckie, who was named for a "Rugrats" character. The dog, his fur washed and brushed by Neal, was laid out on his right side, his sturdy, almond-colored plastic coffin set on a wooden table and flanked by wreaths of silk flowers.
Afterward, Masone, 54, sighed and said, "He looked just like he was sleeping."
The bill: $1,150 for the plot, headstone and Chuckie's waterproof coffin, as well as perpetual care. "Money well spent," Masone said.
Let's say you've never been emotionally bonded to an animal companion, and so you've never experienced profound and lasting pet bereavement. You wonder: How can the death of an animal plunge a person into bottomless grief? Well, it happens -- and happens a lot. Just hang around a pet cemetery some weekend -- Sugarloaf, in Barnesville, for example -- and you'll see it up close.
"People might call them pets, but I never really thought of them as pets," Masone said of Chuckie and the family's other pug, Mattie, born together in a litter in 1999. Watching the dogs grow up, watching them romp in his Glenmont home, Masone, a civil engineer, said he came to know every quirk of each pug's behavior -- their "dog-onalities," as he put it.
"The best way I can describe it is, Chuckie was a good friend of mine who just happened to be a dog," Masone said. "He was part of the family. He was someone we took care of, the same way we take care of the kids." At the viewing, before the coffin was shut and sealed, Masone gently reached in, fastened Chuckie's collar around the dog's neck, and clipped off a tuft of his fur as a keepsake. "I cried for the guy," said Masone, a burly fellow who grew up in New York and has the accent to prove it.
Hundreds of dogs and cats, plus hamsters and rabbits, ferrets and birds and at least one iguana, named Buddy -- "Our gorgeous green girl," says the epitaph -- have passed through Neal's funeral parlor, on the grounds of his former farm since 1983. There, they are ushered to eternal rest by a kindly, God-fearing gentleman in a golf shirt and orthopedic shoes, with a knack for comforting the anguished.
"There is a bridge connecting heaven and earth," Neal said at the graveside before Chuckie was lowered into the ground. He was reading from a sheet of paper a warm little story called "The Rainbow Bridge," a standard at pet burials. Neal got a copy of it in the mail after he joined the International Association of Pet Cemeteries & Crematories.
Occasionally, pets who have met with terrible accidents arrive at Sugarloaf in a condition not suited for a viewing. Neal has no training in mortuary science, does no embalming and can perform only so many cosmetic wonders on an animal in his preparation room. Sometimes open coffins at wakes are out of the question.
But Chuckie, he looked good, all things considered.
"It is called the Rainbow Bridge because of its many colors," said Neal, who tells the story at nearly every interment. Standing by the grave, Masone said later that he took solace from the words.
"Just this side of the Rainbow Bridge, there is a land of meadows, hills and valleys, with lush green grass," Neal continued. "When a beloved pet dies, he goes to this place. There is always food and water and warm spring weather. The old and frail animals are young again. Those who are maimed are made whole again.
"They play all day with each other."
And in time, in this lovely place, the story says, the bereaved are reunited with their pets. "Then you cross the Rainbow Bridge together, never to be separated again."
Neal, who was raised on a Montana horse ranch, might have smirked at "The Rainbow Bridge" in his younger years. Animals were just animals then: They slept in the barn, and when they died, you put them in a hole, shoveled dirt on top, waved goodbye and went in for supper. In the 1980s, though, in a roundabout way, he gradually came to appreciate the bonds many people have with their pets.
When he bought his 50 acres in Barnesville for $122,000 in 1970, it was a peach orchard. After an early snowstorm in 1979 killed his 2,000 peach trees, he grew corn and other crops, but with no lasting success.
Because he made his living as a salesman for a company that makes calendars and promotional gifts, Neal said, he didn't need a profit from the farm. He was looking for ways to squeeze just enough money out of his land to pay for insurance, upkeep and taxes. And that led him into the pet funeral business.
One of his sons suggested it to him after doing research. "I said I'd never heard of such a thing," Neal recalled. But the more he looked into it, the more it appealed to him.
After setting up a perpetual-care fund for the graves and obtaining licenses, he directed his first burial in December 1983. The deceased, Jojo, was a poodle. "The next month, we buried his sister," Suzette. "She drowned in the swimming pool."
He said he buried five animals in 1984 and twice that many in 1985. The numbers kept going up. He put 125 pets in the ground last year, he said, most of the funerals costing $600 to $1,000.
The cemetery covers an acre now, with about 1,500 graves, and the roster of the interred runs 32 pages, single-spaced. The coffins in his showroom, made by Hoegh Pet Casket Co., come in sizes for an array of household animals, from guinea pigs to German shepherds.
"I learned that there's something between humans and their animals that's known as unconditional love," said Neal, who is not bonded to any pet himself.
Neal said he has put restrictions on the deeds for all his land, barring future commercial or residential construction. Zoning rules also require that the acreage around the graveyard remain undeveloped. The cemetery will be overseen by trustees after he is gone, Neal said, and it must remain a burial ground. He said he hopes it will grow, consuming more of the farm. There's room on 50 acres for tens of thousands of graves.
Strolling among the headstones, past dogwood and maples, oaks and evergreens, Neal can read what the bereaved saw in their pets.
They saw cuteness: Fluffy, Fuzzy, Cuddles and Sweet Pea, Gumdrop, Buttercup, Honeybun and Puddin'. They saw strength: King, Lord, Duke and Baron, General, Admiral, Captain and Commander. They saw simplicity: Jake, Max, Hank and Lennie, Katy, Molly, Cindy and Sarah. And they saw humor: Gimpy, Fatso, Calamity and Fart.
Little photos sealed in enamel are embedded in many of the headstones. Crucifixes and Stars of David are chiseled in some. These were "happy" and "fearless" pets, their epitaphs recall. They were "loyal" and "gentle," they were "clever" and "wise." They were talented: "She learned to dance," says one, for a ferret. And they were cherished, like the dog named Rocky, who passed away last summer: "You were my reason for living."
When Neal finished reciting "The Rainbow Bridge," Chuckie, who died July 20 after a seizure, was lowered into the hole.
Then the mourners took turns dropping dirt on the coffin with a trowel. Masone's wife, Diana, 55, stood with a hand covering her mouth, staring into the grave, lost in thought.
For a moment, the only sound in the cemetery was of birds chirping in the trees.
"We're not saying goodbye to Chuckie," Neal said quietly, before the mourners, one after another, turned and walked away, their heads down.
"We're saying, 'So long, dear friend. We look forward to when we'll all be together again.' "