Friday, June 25, 2010

Dealing With A Pet's Death


When Rajeev Poopalasingam’s best friend died unexpectedly last November, he was determined to see him off to the next world with the best Hindu traditions.
Poopalasingam and his distraught family said their goodbyes at a Scarborough crematorium where they surrounded the body with flowers and gently pressed a spot of red on their beloved friend’s forehead.
It didn’t matter that the deceased was an 8-year-old pit bull mix named Chaos.
“He was like a family member, a little kid who never grew up,” says Poopalasingam. “He might have been born a dog, but he died a human.”
That’s a tearful sentiment funeral home directors, grief counsellors and even crematorium staff are hearing more these days as the line between furry companion and family member goes up in smoke.
Funeral director David Garvie recalls one man who called to inquire if he could arrange a casket, visitation and full funeral procession for his ailing dog when the time came. Others have asked about embalming and burial.
One couple even called Garvie seeking special permission to sit in on family grief counselling sessions because they were having a tough time coping a year later with the death of their dog.
It’s the profound sense of loss — and confusion over how to deal with it — that prompted Helen Hobbs to recently open Toronto’s first store for bereaved pet owners. She offers pet funeral services and cremation, along with keepsakes, like an urn crafted out of stained glass — the eternal doghouse.
She’s handled everything from hamsters to a lizard.
“I’ve had so many people say to me, ‘I’m grieving this pet more than when my mother or father died,’ ” says Hobbs, a licensed funeral director who, until recently, was running Pets at Peace out of her Kingston Rd. doggy daycare.
“Pet grief is not acknowledged, yet for many people these have been surrogate children. If a relative dies, people are going to comfort you and support you and if you’re still grieving a year from now, they’ll understand.
“When a pet dies, people will say, ‘Oh, come on. Get over it and get another dog.’ It’s amazing how insensitive people can be.”
Pam Hunt has organized one pet funeral, in an office adjacent to the R.S. Kane Funeral Home where she works, since starting up Devotion: Death Care Services For Your Pet after her own golden retriever got deathly ill in 2003.
But increasingly she’s being summoned to homes to transport a dead cat or dog to the crematorium, only to find a strange return to human traditions —owners and friends gathered over the body, laid out on its favourite blanket as if sleeping.
In one case, a single woman and her friends acted as impromptu pall bearers.
“They all carried him out to my vehicle and stood there crying as I drove away,” says Hunt.
Hobbs predicts it won’t be long until pet funeral homes start springing up as they have in Britain — there’s already one in Calgary and Fredericton — to ensure that Max gets treated with the same respect as his master, not to mention his own picture and life story in the obituary section of the local paper. Already online pet memorials are a booming business.
“I think that’s because you have the most pure relationship with this creature. You’ve never had an argument with them. There’s no jealousy, no betrayal. Their love is so unconditional,” says Hobbs.
“A lot of people don’t want to just leave their pet at the vet. They want to be with them for that final step.”
Increasingly, that includes saying their goodbyes right at the crematorium, says Julia Sutor of Lasting Memories Pet Memorial near Port Dover. She’s seen everyone from distraught horse owners to a little girl cradling her pet rabbit in a hand-painted cardboard box, come to say goodbye in the viewing room adjacent to the oven since the facility opened over three years ago.
Scarborough resident Etta Chan, 23, has spent almost $800 having six hamsters cremated over the years (at roughly $130 a rodent) — something that has outraged her mother, but eased her fears that a wild animal might dig up the carcasses of her beloved pets.
There are no pet cemeteries in Toronto (the nearest are over an hour away)_and a bylaw prohibits burying pets in the backyard, although it’s widely done.
Chan just feels better having her hamsters’ ashes in urns on a bedroom shelf where, “in a sense they’re still with me.”
Poopalasingam is grateful he was able to be with Chaos right to the end. He had planned to keep the dog’s ashes in an urn until warned by his more devout parents that his soul would be unable to rest.
So he did the next best thing he could think of — took his beloved dog’s remains to Lake Ontario and scattered them on the moving water.
“Since we don’t have a Ganges here I thought, there’s no better place than that.”

*Taken from the Toronto Star