Ashes to ashes
Instead of being sent to the dump, dead pets are now given special cremations and tombstones writes Oliver Roberts
There's a story doing the rounds in the pet funeral business about a woman who was so overwhelmed by grief at the death of her dog that, at his cremation, she tried to climb into the incinerator to be with him among the flames. Stunned workers had to rush in and pull the woman away.
And although this is a bizarre account, it is easy to underestimate the sense of loss that the passing of a pet can create. It's often shrugged off as a minor sadness, but for many, pets are companions, children even, and, having treated them as such in life, owners want them to be honoured in death.
No longer are the deceased animals left at the vet to be sent to a municipal dump. Owners want to be sure their pets are being treated with dignity and they want to keep their ashes and erect tombstones for them. This is where specialised pet cremation and burial services come in.
"People want to know they were with their pet to the very end," says Dellen Harvey of Envirocin, a pet crematorium and memorial park based in Johannesburg and Durban. Harvey is the office manager at the Johannesburg branch, but she doubles as a counsellor to bereft clients: "Owners just want to vent," she says. "They come here with pictures and laptops and I sit with them and they tell me everything about their pet. I feel drained at the end. Sometimes it goes on for three hours."
Envirocin offers a special grieving room, decorated with colourful furniture. In one corner is a television where, via a CCTV camera, owners can watch their pet being placed in the incinerator. There is also a lapa outside where the family can pay their last respects. Here, their wilted animal is placed on a table before it is sent to the incinerator.
"Some people bring along their other, living, pets so they can see them and have closure too," Harvey says.
Apart from cats and dogs, there have been ceremonies for adored hamsters, snakes, birds and meerkats. One elderly woman even brought in a pet rat she'd rescued years ago from a dumpster. When the thing was on its last little legs, she sat up with it all night and it died in her arms. "This little soul meant the world to her," says Harvey.
Founded in 1996, Envirocin features a wall of remembrance where more than 300 pets' ashes are stored, and a memorial garden where 60-odd tombstones lie beneath tall pine trees. Next to some of the boxes in the wall are items such as the pets' favourite toy or tennis ball. Presumably the animals carry these items with them into the afterlife, just like the ancient Egyptians.
"We originally started with about 20 vets as clients," says Dean Webb, co-founder of the business. "It is more expensive than dumping, so it was slow to start." The crematorium is now accredited with 240 vets in Gauteng and 50 in KZN.
There is a fleet of eight cars which, according to Webb, are out all day, every day, collecting animals from vets and homes. Those placed in black bags will be cremated in a communal incinerator and the owner will receive mixed ashes; those in yellow bags get their own, more expensive, cremation. In both cases, the ashes are wrapped neatly in a clear plastic bag and placed in a wooden box (a laminated poem is included inside) which the owner either takes home, has placed in the wall or buried. Communal cremation costs R200; individual ashes R950; a place in the wall of remembrance R1500; and a granite tombstone R4500 (this includes cremation and ashes in a meranti box). Webb says that, after the cremation, an owner generally visits on the pet's birth or death day and lays flowers. After their divorce, one couple split the ashes.
Prennay Chetty recently bought a tombstone at Envirocin for her dog Jady, who died in late August. One Saturday, just after the stone was put up, I watch as Prennay visits the grave of the animal she says would lick her tears away whenever she got sad. So besieged is she by the loss of her dog that, after placing roses on the grave, she stands back and has to be consoled by her valorous fiancé.
Before Jady was cremated, Chetty chose to spend a moment with her under the lapa. She is comforted to know that if ever she feels depressed, she can visit the grave. "It's hard, though," she says. "It's been nearly three months and I still find it difficult to go into my room - it feels so empty. But I feel that when you leave Earth, your spirit goes to rest with God. Animals are God's creation and they get released back into the kingdom of God."
Frances O'Neill, scientist and animal-lover, has put several pets to rest, and believes there is a time between the animal's passing and their "crossing over" when they can still be communicated with: "I have been most fortunate to communicate with them during this time, with the help of those who 'talk' to animals," she says. "It's difficult for me to hear them as I'm very emotional, so I ask others to chat to them on my behalf. It is a very special time"
O'Neill says one of her late dogs, Schnoeks, still visits her home to lie in her favourite basket. "Many other pets live on in my heart and often come to share my dreams at night," she adds. She does not immediately send her dead animals to the crematorium. She prefers them to stay the night at home "surrounded by rose quartz and garden flowers". She believes she will meet with them all again in death: "All my pets are cremated and I will keep their ashes until one day I too become an angel. Then our combined ashes shall forever ride the waves of the deep blue ocean in Hermanus."
There are some owners for whom the spiritual realm will not suffice. They need their lost pets to remain tangible and tactile. So they have them stuffed.
Katharina Hecker of Nico van Rooyen Taxidermy in Rosslyn says that the first thing the taxidermist does is try to convince the person to bury the pet.
"Often the cost of taxidermy exceeds the cost of a new pet," she explains. "It is also difficult to capture the personality of an individual animal over and above that of a species. For example, Billy the family dog as opposed to just any dachshund. If the mourning pet owner persists, more often than not he or she is disappointed when the mounted animal is collected, because it does not wag its tail or blink."
Gideon Lubbe of Spirit of Africa taxidermy has mounted dogs, cats and birds before. It's a complicated process.
"The problem with mounting pets is that the client always changes the pose of the dog or cat as they are constantly thinking of how the pet acted around the house and they want to remember the pet in its best position," Lubbe says. "The other problem is that the owner gets a new pet a month later and forgets about the one that passed away and then we're stuck with it."
Farewell, beloved angel ...
DENOIR 15 NOV 1990-24 JAN 2002: You touched our lives forever with your irresistible charm. Until we meet again at the rainbow bridge, love mom and dad.
WINNIE THE POOH 1990-2004: Alias Fatty: The weaner boobs. One in a billion. An angel sent from above. A creature that touched our lives and will be loved and remembered for eternity.
SHIRAZ 14 FEB 1994-11 MAY 2004: No words can explain the love I feel. No words can explain the pain Ifeel. Rest in peace my beloved friend until the day we meet again.
CHEWBACCA 1991-2001: Fly, fly precious one. Your heart is pure, your soul is free. Be on your way, don't wait for me. Above the universe you'll climb, on beyond the hands of time.
KIMBERLEY NKOYANE: We will remember you sitting among the flowers of our garden, beady-eyed beauty. We will remember you waddling around the house, the pitter-patter of little pawses (sic). Our wisp of love we will never forget.