Sonny was an extra-special cat.
He was a Christmas present to the family of Polly Volkman from her husband, who didn't like cats and was dying of cancer.
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That was 10 years ago, and afterward Volkman kept in touch with the man who buried her husband and two of her other relatives, funeral director Bryan Moss of Moss Family Funeral Home in Batavia.
When Volkman heard Moss planned to do services for pets, she knew that's what she wanted for Sonny, who was gravely ill with kidney disease.
That was just a few months ago, and Sonny now rests in a velvet bag in a "darling tin can with paw prints," the Sugar Grove woman said.
"The option was nice," she added. "It was just a nice, personal, comforting option that is not expensive."
Clients such as Volkman are the reason some human funeral homes are branching out and offering pet services.
"Families cherish their pets today, and we see that we offer the same services as we have for their human loved ones," Moss said. "And it is really just a nice connection to be able to handle everybody's family member."
Dignity in death
More than half of all owners call themselves the "mommy" or "daddy" of their pets, according to a pet-food manufacturer survey. Empty-nesters and millennials drive the sales growth of pet spas, dog-treat bakeries and pet-accepting hotel rooms. Owners nationwide spend about $55 billion a year on their pets.
But the ends of pets' lives can be undignified and stressful. If they don't die naturally, or in an accident, they often are carted on one last anxious trip to the veterinarian's office to be put down. The most devoted of owners might then bury Rex in a pet cemetery or keep the ashes of favorite feline Fluffy. Some are buried in the backyard.
But many are simply left behind for the veterinarian to deal with as, in the bluntest of terms, biological waste.
Coleen Ellis, co-chairman of the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance, says there's no reason pets shouldn't be accorded dignity when they die.
"We treat and spoil them in life," she said. "Why not do so in death?"
Ellis proposed the alliance six years ago, to offer training and develop standards. She said clients appreciate dealing with people who are specifically trained to help with the loss of a pet. It gives people "permission" to do what they want to honor their pets.
"If you tell the wrong people about your pet's death, you may not get the sympathy you need," said Ellis, who spent 16 years as a funeral director before opening the nation's first pet funeral home 11 years ago in Greenwood, Ind.
'We get it'
Animal cemeteries and crematoriums have been around the suburbs since the late 1920s. Hinsdale Animal Cemetery, whose owner is a co-founder of the pet loss professionals group, has been in business since 1926. But it is a newer phenomenon for funeral operations that deal with humans to take on pets as well.
Moss Family Paws is a division of the Batavia-based funeral home. It deals with transportation, cremation, memorialization and mourning of pets.
"We know how deeply emotional everyone is with their pets," said Andrea Stahly, marketing director for Moss. "We get it."
That understanding comes from the top down, as Bryan Moss is a devoted dog owner. His Boston terrier, Moxy, comes with him to the office.
And when the funeral home opened its own crematorium in March 2013, Moss realized he could offer clients a service that fits in with his philosophy of taking care of the whole family during a time of loss.
Moss grew up on a Mendota-area farm, where the dogs and cats stayed outside and the family buried pets. He can see how people who haven't had a pet might think it over the top to grieve the loss of one deeply or devote much thought to disposing of the body.
Yet people have asked him if they can be buried with their pets. (The answer is "no." The cemeteries Moss deals with don't allow it.)
Some people don't have the option of burying a pet. And in our increasingly transient society, what if you move? Moss also has seen the embarrassment people feel about their grief over a pet. He recalled a man who apologized while crying in Moss' office over the loss of a dog; the man felt at his age, 60, it shouldn't have bothered him so much,
"We felt there was a need there to service that and service it with respect," Ellis said.
The practical aspect
Unless you are going to bury your pet, you have to pay somebody to dispose of the body. With animals, the cost will depend on the size. It also depends on whether you use private, communal or partitioned cremations.
Moss does only private cremations, in a separate machine from the one used for humans, in a separate room.
He only does one animal at a time, scoffing at the idea of "partitioned" animal cremations. In such a procedure, several animals are cremated at once, but short walls of bricks separate the bodies.
Given the mechanics of cremation, Moss said, it's not likely the ashes stay entirely separate, and so telling people they are getting back the remains of only their animal is dishonest, he says.
Moss offers pickup of the animal and delivery of the cremated remains. One can also watch the cremation, to make sure the ashes you're returned are really those of your pet.
The national pet loss group encourages its members to make this option available, as a way of fighting consumer fraud.
And through the funeral home, one can order caskets, urns and headstones for pets, or jewelry made out of the ashes, just like one would for a human relative. The funeral home also offers written materials to help people deal with their grief.
Moss acknowledges helping pet owners may lead to business on the human side.
"It is a great outreach to the community to touch a family well before they will have a need for services for a human," he said.
Moss says he can offer pet owners immediacy. He's on call every day, just as he is for humans. Generally, he can return remains to owners within one to two days. A veterinarian's office may have only a once-a-week-pickup of bodies for disposal.
Moss hasn't conducted pet wakes or memorial services, but he hasn't ruled it out, either.
He said an employee, somewhat skeptical of pet services, recently "got it" after picking up a dog for cremation. He talked for a while with the family, who told him stories about the dog. He also returned the remains to the family with a newfound appreciation for what they had been through.
Unlike a human death, there's no infighting, Moss said. Usually everybody loves the pet, and the pet provided unconditional love. The funeral director isn't dealing with a family arguing over wills, last wishes or money.
Moss describes his new business as "simple outreach we should have been doing," while providing "a better level of service to the pet owners in our community and the surrounding communities. The reaction from the community has been wonderful."