The Pet-Death Business


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.

“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!”

From his perspective, 1968 was a very good year. According to the New York City Department of Health’s Survey of Vital Statistics, 1968 saw 91,169 people check out, with a death rate of 11.6 per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, 2007 (the most recent year for which there are statistics) saw only 54,073 deaths, with nearly half the death rate (6.5 per 100,000).

The irony lost on Ralph is not completely lost on his son, Richard, who also works in the home. “A ‘good year’ or a ‘bad year’ in our business is not necessarily the same for everyone else,” he says.

The death rate has been declining nationally for decades, but it’s doing so even faster in New York. This is bad news for the city’s funeral homes, and it doesn’t mean people are all that healthier.

“New York is a young town,” says Richard. “Only the young, who are working hard, can afford to be here. Once you stop working, you just can’t keep up.” The long-time residents of Ozone Park, who would be prime clients, are moving to places like Florida to die.

One way to connect with new clients is through their pets, so Richard has founded Pet Cremation New York as a companion business within the funeral home. “Our motto is ‘Pets Are Family, Too,’ ” says Richard. But after picking up a pet, delivering it to a crematorium, and returning it, there isn’t a lot of profit. Most jobs aren’t worth more than a couple hundred dollars—a fraction of human funerals. Yet, he says, “if someone sees you do a good job in helping them mourn their pets . . . ,” well, they might just throw themselves Francisco’s way when they kick it.

John D’Arienzo of the D’Arienzo Funeral Home in Williamsburg sees the even bigger picture: “It’s a great way to guarantee future business,” he says. “It teaches the younger generation that when something that you care about dies, you go pay your respects, you go to a funeral home and talk to a funeral director. You don’t just throw it away.”

But D’Arienzo wasn’t always comfortable with the idea of handling pets. “Look at my name—it’s as ethnic as you can get,” he says. When their home was founded in 1934, his family’s practice wasn’t just Italian, “it was Neapolitan. We only handled people from Naples. People from Sicily, someone else handled them.”

Pets in a traditional funeral home? “Frankly,” he says, “I wasn’t sure how my Italian clientele would react.” But like many others now in the pet-death business, he became a convert from a personal experience he had as a pet owner. His wife had stage-four breast cancer, and her dog sat by her side throughout chemo. When the dog died, his wife wanted to memorialize it with the same dignity afforded to humans.

Still, to D’Arienzo’s surprise, his clients have taken to the idea quite warmly. He does three to six pet intakes a week. But, like Richard Francisco, who is quick to say, “We’re not doing Fido next to Grandma,” D’Arienzo worried about people perceiving the commingling of human and pet services. There is a separate side entrance to the D’Arienzo Funeral Home for pets.

Intake is one thing; actual services, or wakes, are another. “I won’t ruin the sanctity of the funeral home by having a wake for an animal,” D’Arienzo says. But he hints that it’s coming and that soon all human funeral homes will offer such services for pets. “I’ve been wrong before, and someone will come across with a load of money who wants to do it, and I’ll be between a rock and a hard place. It’s not a matter of if, but when.”

Yes, the funeral business is changing, but in Queens, nothing appears to have changed at the Francisco Funeral Home—at least on the surface. The exterior is straight out of the ’60s, and a large smokers’ lounge, where mourners would once gather to remember the deceased over a pack of Pall Malls, probably needs the haze of cigarette smoke to give it any sense of life.

Adjacent to the lounge, a large death-product showroom has also failed to evolve. Caskets that look like Cadillacs, and cost as much, went out of fashion long before Cadillac itself was only a bailout away from needing a wake. The embalming room, where Ralph still prepares bodies, is also painfully out of step with the finances of the times. Ralph admits he could save $500 to $600 per body by outsourcing this task, a common practice in the corporatized death-care industry, but he has a funeral director’s pride in his own work, and though he has allowed a few changes in his home, this is not one of them.

Changes are more apparent on the first floor of the home, where Richard works. Richard is a young, beefy fellow, with a massive spiderweb tattoo running up the length of an arm. Instead of a dark suit, he is dressed in a polo shirt and is often accompanied by a large bulldog.

Richard’s pet-cremation business does have a physical presence within the home. Off from the main lobby, there is a mourning room with a suspiciously small altar. In sharp contrast to the tomb-like casket display of the basement, there is also a modern, petite display of urns and headstones that Richard manages. But these urns are heartbreakingly little. Instead of being inscribed with names like “Angelo” and “Gabriella,” they are stamped “Fido” and “Rover.” The halo-wearing puppies and kittens adorning these boxes can’t hide their somber purpose: to hold a loved one, forever.

“People don’t realize how devastating this can be,” says Richard. “For a lot of older people, this pet—it’s the only living thing that they ever talk to.”

“Death is strange, and people are strange,” he says, and there is no predicting how people will react to their loss of a human or an animal. He has seen people who can’t be bothered to go to their own spouse’s funeral, and he has seen grieving pet owners who seem like they won’t be able to go on.

“I had a woman once who called me, who couldn’t let go of her cat who had died. She called and said, ‘What do I do?’ I said, ‘Put it in a cold place, call me when you’re ready to say goodbye, and I’ll come pick it up.’ She didn’t call back, and days went by. Finally, she called and said, ‘I’m ready.’ “

When he went to pick it up, he understood the only reason she had called.

Her freezer had stopped working.

Pet owners who don’t want the fanfare of a funeral home can proceed directly to a crematorium. It’s not necessarily the cheapest way—it costs only $25 to drop your deceased animal at New York City Animal Control—but it’s cheaper than going through a vet or human funeral home.

Everything around the Pet Crematory Agency in Babylon says death. It is located adjacent to the 330,000-plus graves of the Long Island National Cemetery, which is even larger than Arlington.

Aside from the massive chimneys protruding from its roof, PCA’s building blends in pretty well to the industrial park where it’s located. It is owned by James Aracri, a kind of Jared Kushner of the pet-death industry. In shades even on an overcast day, he is a trim 35-year-old with the self-confidence of a businessman just returning from a Tony Robbins seminar. (Aracri’s businesses range from pet cremation to his own line of wasabi-flavored table condiments.)

Aracri comes from a family of pet owners, who were looking for a “family business” to invest in. After they bought PCA five years ago, Aracri claims, they put a million dollars into it—and it seems to show: The volume of business that PCA does with municipal shelters is so large that its billing is negotiated not in the number or pounds of animals, but in tons. The transportation hub monitors a fleet of vehicles that make pickups and drop-offs at the 350 vets and shelters where PCA has contracts. The five ovens are extremely modern and, per EPA regulations, don’t emit any color or smell.

The reception area, ironically, looks much like an old-school Italian funeral home. Aside from a display case of tombstones and urns, it’s hard to tell from this comfortable room just what goes on behind the walls.

PCA breaks up its jobs into three categories: private individual cremations (one animal, one oven), private group cremations (multiple animals are placed in different labeled baking pans in the same oven), and mass group cremations (many animals in one oven, with no ashes returned). It does about 200 private cremations a week. Many of them have their own unique touches: “People will want their pets done with a special item sometimes—a blanket, their doggie bed,” says PCA administrator Lisa Clemente. Or an accompanying last supper, such as “a chicken cutlet, their favorite chew toy, or a bag of kibble or treats,” she adds.

Clemente says 70 percent of PCA’s big business comes from New York City. But about 30 percent comes from suburban Long Island, where, presumably, people have yards. “People don’t stay in one house their whole lives anymore,” she says. “They will call [PCA] and say, ‘I have a weird question. I buried my pet, and I’m going to move. If I dig it up, can you cremate it for me?” (The answer is yes.)

And the process is especially careful these days. The gruesome scandal of the Long Island Pet Cemetery in 1991—which returned fake ashes to pet owners—never seems to be far from PCA’s mind. Staffers take great pains to identify each animal throughout their process, so they can assure customers that they are getting back the returns of their own pet.

For some customers, this is not enough. Off the reception area, there is a small viewing room, normally used for a family to say its last goodbye to a pet after the staff has cleaned it up. But the room also has a tiny window, covered with blinds. Once a pet has been taken away, the especially skeptical can raise the blinds and look right into the mouth of one of the crematorium’s massive ovens. From this vantage point, a family can watch their beloved pet being put into the oven, to assure they are getting the proper cremains.

Aracri and his staff are pretty open, and don’t mind letting customers see what actually transpires. Unlike the human death-care industry, which does much of its work in secret, Aracri thinks that the more that people know about pet cremation, the more likely they will be to do it.

The inner sanctum of the crematorium is so clean and smooth that it is easy to forget what is actually going on. The main bay houses all of the ovens, which vary in size, one large enough to cremate horses or even wildlife from the Bronx Zoo. (A container of equine ashes looks more like a human coffin than an urn.)

While crematorium manager Stephen Petrosky checks out one of the computer-controlled ovens, which has just shut off, he notes that he is the owner of six dogs himself, has worked here for 12 years, is on call 24 hours a day, and regularly dispatches drivers in the middle of the night to pick up pets.

The oven’s heat is now uncomfortable, but not unbearable. Inside, there isn’t much left to see. The remains of a dozen pets that blessed a dozen different homes have now been reduced to so many trays of bones.

From here, Petrosky enters an area where the bones become ash. He picks up a metal container about the size and shape of a bucket of KFC. The bones inside actually resemble well-cleaned chicken drumsticks. The tag identifies them as belonging to a 52-pound cocker spaniel. He pours the cocker into a grinder, and the raucous noises it produces are the first concrete sounds of what actually happens here.

He empties the bones—now mostly dust and marble-size chunks—into a bag, just as one of PCA’s vans pulls up, hauling about 1,400 pounds of cargo, a typical load. Paul Baier emerges from it. He’s a small, wiry man, with a kind smile. Like most of the men who work here, he’s got a good sense of humor about what he does, balanced with a serious respect for the deceased animals he handles.

Tired from this particular shift, Baier has just hauled a 120-pound Saint Bernard up a flight of stairs from a basement by himself (he weighs all of 140 pounds), and his back is hurting. But he doesn’t complain too much. The Saint Bernard died in a pose that made it easier to carry, and, besides, it was nothing compared to the 300-pound mastiff mutt that had to be moved with a forklift.

Dogs are, however, somewhat unusual here. About 80 percent of PCA’s animals are feline, mostly kittens that never got a home and grew into cats no one wanted. It’s staggering to see the animals he has brought in for cremation once they have been offloaded from his truck. In the refrigerated loading dock, where they will reside until they are cremated, are literally hundreds of dead cats in plastic bags, stacked up in trash bins. Paws, stiff with rigor mortis, stick out here and there. They will remain in this pose until they are reduced to bones, then ash.

These animals will never make it to an urn. Most of these particular cats are strays brought in en masse from a city pound. Their nine lives depleted, they will burn, then spend eternity in a landfill.

Individual pets brought to PCA for private cremation will be washed, carefully prepared, and returned to their owners in a nice tin with a card.

Tooling through the city delivering cremains to pet owners, former bank executive Louis Clarke recalls starting Pet Haven after burning out in the corporate world a few years ago.

Clarke’s usual assistant, Shawn Robinson, is currently on a year-long sabbatical to spend some time with a living animal for a change. He is riding across America on a rickshaw, with his 80-pound pit bull, Cooper, in tow.

Today, Clarke is being driven around Manhattan by David Yost, who is filling in for Robinson and is on his second day on the job. He doesn’t seem too fazed by his new, unusual gig, but Yost, who has the build of a mob enforcer, seems like one of Tony Soprano’s chauffeurs as he navigates the city while his boss works the phone.

In fact, that’s what Yost, a would-be actor, would rather be doing. “My dream was to be an extra on The Sopranos,” he says, and he even tried to go to an open call once. “I was heartbroken when that one went off the air.”

“Hello? Hi, this is Louis from Pet Haven,” Clarke says into his cell phone, shuffling through papers. “I have Olivia ready to drop off.” He always uses pets’ names and speaks of them in the present tense, even after they are cremated.

It can be awkward to get a COD under the most normal of circumstances. When the exchange of goods for payment involves a deceased pet, the transaction has to be handled delicately. Further complicating matters today is that there is nowhere to double-park on the midtown street that Olivia would have looked out on from her owner’s window. Law & Order is using most of the street for a shoot, and is blocking easy access to Olivia’s building.

Law & Order! I love Jerry Orbach!” exclaims Yost. “I’d love to work as an extra for them!” (He does not seem to realize Orbach went the way of Olivia some years ago.)

“You should give them your headshot,” says Clarke. This job has unusual hours, but he encourages Yost to go on auditions. In mere seconds, Yost produces an 8×10 black-and-white glossy of himself, and is scampering toward the Law & Order set. Meanwhile, because Pet Haven is parked in a tow-away spot across the street, Clarke has asked Olivia’s owner to come downstairs to the car. By the time Yost returns, headshot still in hand—”They said I need to find something called the honey wagon?”—Olivia’s owner is on her way to the car.

This return to the owner—a woman so depressed that her male companion has to prop her up—is strained, and she seems more angry than grateful after having to negotiate her way across the street before exchanging a check for her Olivia.

Clarke tries to pat the man on the shoulder, but it doesn’t have any effect. Wordlessly, the couple leaves. He doesn’t seem ruffled. Sometimes people express their gratitude, but “they’ve just lost their best friend,” as he puts it, and he knows they’re not always happy to get them back.

Before heading off for their next delivery, Clarke lets Yost drive around until he can find the honey wagon, the mobile trailer that houses the extras’ casting office. But when he finds it, it’s locked, and he’s told he should just mail in his headshot “I’m kind of disappointed. I’d have done anything to be an extra. I’d lay in the street, I’d play someone dead in a chalk outline—I don’t care.”

Clarke’s next mission is to return a dog to a family in the Bronx. He gives it to a teenage boy, along with a handwritten sympathy card (which he does for every pet.) The boy’s mother is not home, nor did she leave a check, but Clarke leaves the pet with the grateful boy, even though it was to be COD.

“What am I going to do? They trusted me with their pet, so I am going to trust them,” he says. “I am sure it will be fine.”

When Clarke arrives at his final stop of the day, a canine pickup on Houston, he calls the client, who sounds deeply depressed and says he’ll call him back in a few minutes when he’s ready to say goodbye. Clarke doesn’t push him. A half-hour goes by, then 45 minutes. After an hour, Clarke, somewhat nervously, finally calls back. “Hi, this is Louis from Pet Haven—are you OK? You need a few more minutes? A few hours? Well, we don’t want to come before you’re ready.”

Clarke ends up coming back the next day without an additional charge. “Sometimes, people just aren’t ready to let go,” he says, “and it would be cruel to push them.”

He doesn’t approve, however, of never saying goodbye. Clarke finds services that freeze-dry dead pets and return them looking more or less like they did in life, unhealthy. “Those people are taking advantage of people who are inappropriately grieving,” he says. “They don’t need a freeze-dried pet. They need a therapist. They need a family friend, who will help them. Because what they want is something that they can’t ever have again.”

But Chris Calagan of Perpetual Pet in West Virginia describes freeze-drying as “being like a picture, but only better.” Owners (some from New York) Fed-Ex their pets to Calagan after a night in the freezer. Calagan defrosts them, removes the internal organs, and poses them in a reverse-osmosis drier that sucks out all the moisture, a process that can take up to four months to complete. Admitting “it is not for everyone,” he says that “if people don’t like it, they don’t need to get it done.” Most people who get their pets freeze-dried, he says, keep them until they themselves die and are buried with them.

Burial with a pet is, of course, not limited to the freeze-drying crowd. According to the staff of Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, people who cremate their pets will routinely put in their wills that the cremains are to be buried with them, or that their own ashes are to be mixed with their pets’ after they themselves are cremated.

There’s even a rather famous New York couple who did something like this. Up the Hudson River, in Hyde Park, lies a small, private graveyard. It is only big enough for a husband, a wife, and one other occupant. The third grave does not belong to any of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s six children. It belongs to Fala, their Scottish terrier.