The Pet-Death Business

All dogs go to heaven. Yours will probably get there in an urn.

Riding around Manhattan on a delivery run with a car full of pet cremains, it's hard not to look at the world differently. The omnipresence of pets becomes glaringly obvious, and their inevitable fate is never far from the mind. It's easy to imagine the whippet being jaywalked across Eighth Avenue getting hit by a car. The cocker spaniel on 23rd Street? A bucket of cocker bones in the making.

Sorry, but little Susie's not being buried in the backyard. She's going up in smoke at a pet crematorium.

Louis Clarke, who abandoned his career as a Citibank executive to found Pet Haven as a labor of love, can pick up someone's beloved but deceased cat or dog in his van, drive it to his crematorium in Pennsylvania, and return the ashes to them in just three days. He will never have the volume that huge pet crematoriums in Westchester County and Long Island do, but his rates are the same or cheaper, and, because he lives in Manhattan, he has a bit of an edge over his suburban competition for pickups, especially at odd times.

Rover goes to heaven in style.
Jared Gruenwald
Rover goes to heaven in style.
The Hartsdale Pet Cemetery
Jared Gruenwald
The Hartsdale Pet Cemetery

"When a Doberman dies, and you have 20 kids coming over to the house, it can't wait," says Clarke about one of his biggest days of the year, Thanksgiving. "I don't want people to think their pet will be placed with a thousand others in the back of a garbage truck. When I pick up someone's pet, I want them to see there is a person caring for them."

You care, and that's why so many of you call your veterinarians when your pets die. But that's just one way to dispatch your pet on the start of its final journey. Another way is to call 311, where a voice will tell you that you can "place the animal in a trash bag clearly marked 'dead dog' or 'dead cat' out with your garbage on your normal trash pickup day." But 311 doesn't tell you what to do with a rotting animal carcass until your normal trash pickup day.

So you call Clarke or any one of the numerous other people and services who will pick up your animal. How many animals are we talking about? "About 90 percent of pets die by euthanasia," says Dr. Amy Kurowski of St. Marks Veterinary Hospital. In her practice, about 95 percent of those are cremated.

In the rest of the country, it may still be common to bury the family pet in the backyard. But there are an estimated 1.7 million pets in New York City, and most apartment dwellers don't have that option.

It was this very problem that led to the creation of the first pet cemetery in America in 1896. Dr. Samuel Johnson, a vet in Manhattan, allowed a friend to bury his dog in his rural apple orchard in Westchester County. Word got around, and other friends asked to do the same. More than 100 years later, about 70,000 pets are buried at the historic Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, which the Lonely Planet guide ranks alongside the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids of Egypt as one of the world's 10 "best places of rest."

Even at Hartsdale, though, pet burial is now the exception: About 500 to 600 animals are buried there each year. The Hartsdale crematory, on the other hand, will incinerate about 30,000 pets in 2009.

This is not a bad thing, but you may not want to let Fido or Tabby read the rest of this story, which includes visits to the ovens and some discussion of the pluses and minuses of freeze-drying your pet.

The Francisco Funeral Home sits conspicuously across the street from St. Mary's Gate of Heaven parochial school in Ozone Park. Both institutions are relics of a time when the Queens neighborhood was completely Catholic and generations of Italian families spent their lives within a few blocks' radius of it. In 1967, the year the Franciscos opened their home, the cremation of humans—let alone animals—would have been unthinkable for their customers.

In the years since the Vatican decreed that cremation didn't condemn a soul to hell, the Francisco Funeral Home has gone from doing one cremation every couple of years to burning up more than a third of its bodies annually. Cremation, however, has a much lower profit margin than burial, and its growing popularity is just one of many changes in the business of dying that make it hard for a family to keep an independent funeral home from going under.

So, as a loss leader in these times, the Franciscos have taken to cremating pets. Well, they don't actually cremate the pets—they're the middle man on the final journey to the ovens.

Fighting for their business lives, funeral directors hope that when a pet dies, the owners won't call a vet but will turn to, naturally, their trusted family funeral director. It's bad enough that independent funeral homes are under assault from chains in the death-care industry, but their business is also under attack from an outright lack of death. People in New York are just living too damn long.

"Remember the AIDS virus?" says funeral director Ralph Francisco, 66, almost regretfully. "That was supposed to wipe out everybody. But people are living with it for years!" He wistfully recalls better times. "The best year was 1968!"

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