LOS ANGELES — Her 14-year-old dog Mico had lung cancer and Coleen A. Ellis knew she was taking her to the vet for the last time.
She watched as the vet started to put the terrier schnauzer’s body in a garbage bag.
“I couldn’t just walk out of there with a leash and a collar,” she said.
Ellis took Mico’s body home instead.
A local funeral home agreed to cremate Mico. But as she waited in the chapel, Ellis said she was told they couldn’t turn on the lights because they were having a service for “a real death” down the hall. She vowed to make changes.
A year later, in 2004, Ellis opened what is believed to be the country’s first stand-alone pet funeral home in Indianapolis. Today, there are over 750 pet funeral homes, pet crematories and pet cemeteries across the country — and a lot of human funeral homes have or are looking at ways to offer services when pets die.
Ellis sold her mortuary and now runs Two Hearts Pet Loss Center, which arranges memorial services and helps people grieve the loss of a pet.
In 2009, she helped start the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance as a committee of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association. As the industry grew, so did the alliance. It’s holding its second annual conference this week in Las Vegas.
The group’s goals are simple — set and maintain standards for services related to pet deaths, such as funerals, memorials, cremations and burials.
Poul H. Lemasters, an attorney and president of Lemasters Consulting in Cincinnati, has worked in the funeral industry for over 15 years and is licensed as a funeral director and embalmer in Ohio and West Virginia. When he talked about pet cremation liabilities at PLPA’s inaugural meeting in San Antonio, he drew an audience of 200. More than twice that number has signed up to attend his session at this week’s PLPA conference.
Consumers need more than a handshake from pet morticians, he explained. They need transparency, including a standard cremation authorization form spelling out services, methods, choices and cost. The PLPA will vote on a proposed form during their convention.
“On the human side, the biggest issue out there is always wrongful cremation. On the pet side, it’s not wrongful cremations, but whether cremations are being done at all,” Lemasters said.
There have been animal dumping cases in Arizona, Virginia and Tennessee, where pets were stored instead of cremated, then taken to a landfill or dump and dropped off, he said.
He said Illinois is the frontrunner on laws governing disposition of deceased pets and pet funerals.
Ninety percent of pet owners choose cremation rather than burial for their pets, he said. But while cremation has been offered for a long time, many other types of legal issues related to the deaths of pets — and even the deaths of owners who are survived by their pets — are now getting more attention.
Pets are named in wills, they receive trusts, they are part of prenuptial agreements. In a few states, laws are being rewritten to treat pets as more than personal property, Lemasters said.
California has a new law that says if your animal is killed maliciously, you can claim certain types of damages, Lemasters said.
In Florida, a dog died while under a veterinarian’s care and was cremated before an autopsy could be conducted. The family was awarded more than $10,000 in punitive damages.
Nevada enacted a law allowing pet-owners emotional damages from the death of a pet in certain circumstances up to $5,000. But pet owners can also sue for vet bills and funeral costs, Lemasters said. “The fact they are starting to recognize funeral costs for a pet, that’s pretty unbelievable.”
Memorial services are sometimes held for working dogs, too, whose deaths may affect not just the animal’s owner or handler, but an entire agency, business or community. When a police dog named Bo was killed in May 2007, Ellis was asked to help arrange a memorial service.
Bo had been with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department for about four years when a burglar “turned around with a gun and shot Bo a couple of times. Bo went back to his handler and died in his arms,” Lt. Benny Diggs said.
Bo’s service was attended by about 150 people from the police department and the community. “I really believe it helps,” Diggs said. “When you are a policeman, especially a K-9 handler, that dog becomes your partner.”
The 30-minute service was respectful, but didn’t go overboard, he added.
“We keep it in perspective. We are losing soldiers daily in Afghanistan and Iraq and police officers are dying throughout the United States every week. We never want to take away from their service or what they are doing for the community,” he said.
As pets play bigger roles in people’s lives, it makes sense they will be treated more like family when they die, and that includes holding the types of funeral services that at one time were held only for people, said veterinarian Jane Shaw, who spoke at PLPA’s meeting last year.
Shaw is director of the Argus Institute in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo.
“Telling stories, playing music and reading poetry are all things that allow us to express what this individual meant to us,” she said, “whether it’s human or animal.”