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Pet Cremation and Pet Ashes: Do Your Homework

 by J. Malec

Legion Memorial Cemetery: Cemetery Dogs

Image: Cemetery Dogs*

How do I know these are my pet’s ashes?

In the case of pet cremation, is it better to leave well enough alone and not ask questions? Or, as with the cremation of any cherished family member, do you want to be sure that the ashes returned to you are theirs? Do pets get cremated individually, or are they cremated with other animals?

A recent podcast produced for Freakonomics radio pushes the issue of whether or not pet cremains are a specific animal’s ashes. The podcast suggests that the returned materials are likely commingled with others. Sadly, their findings point to an industry that often gets away with jumbling pet cremains together. Stephen Dubner reports:

According to government statistics, there are well over 200 million pets in America. … And we spend a lot of money on these pets, about $61 billion a year. One area that is growing very fast: pet “aftercare.” The International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories (IAPCC) tells us that ten years ago, only a handful of places specialized in pet aftercare. Today, there are more than 700 pet funeral homes, crematories and cemeteries. … With so much money being spent, and with death being so fraught with emotion and mystery, might there be some misbehavior going on? 

Findings from their independent experiment that included multiple pet crematoriums point to fraudulent promises made on the part of these businesses.

Pet cremation and pet owners’ rights

Ira Woods, president of OneWorld Memorials, was recently quoted on this issue in an article on the website Nano Express News. He advises spending a little extra to ensure that you are receiving solely the ashes of your pet, and not an amalgam of other animals. Ira states:

With little regulation regarding pet cremation, pet owners are right to be concerned. Before your pet is taken, thoroughly research the process and the facility you or your veterinarian is planning to use. If you want zero commingling of ashes, make sure your pet receives a completely private and individual cremation rather than a communal or partitioned cremation where other animals are included. Get it in writing and understand how the crematory defines these different kinds of services. Make sure proper tagging happens as is the norm with human cremation. These few things will certainly cost you more, but in the end you’ll have greater peace of mind. 

When receiving animal cremation or pet cremation, there’s the risk of the ashes of other pets being added to your own – but with some dedicated attention and verification when discussing cremation with your local pet crematoriums, you can gain a sense of security through written notice and guarantees. This keeps the crematorium liable for honoring their promises to you.

What happens during pet aftercare?

If you have opted to euthanize a pet at a veterinarian’s office, the office will often act as the middleman in pet cremation - for a fee, of course. After a pet owner leaves, the pet is often bagged in a black garbage bag. The bag is then placed in a deep freeze until the pet crematorium with which the vet maintains a relationship picks up the bag. Depending on the type of cremation equipment being used at the crematorium, several things can happen. Be sure to do your homework if it matters to you which method is used.

Small urns for ashes can be purchased as memorial urns for the pet’s remains. Pet cremation urns vary in size and style – there are specific ashes urns for cats, for dogs, for tiny animals, as well as ashes urns for larger animals. Sometimes, a crematorium or your veterinarian’s office may offer personalized urns as well as mementos and keepsakes following the euthanasia of your pet. You can inquire as to what these keepsakes may look like with your local veterinarian’s office.

Process of pet cremation

In a two-part series in Psychology Today, Jessica Pierce, Ph.D., describes the process of pet cremation after losing her fourteen year-old pet Vizsla.

There are three types of pet cremation: private, comingled, and partitioned. In a private cremation, only one animal's body is in the oven. During a partitioned cremation, multiple animals may be in the incinerator at the same time, but they are separated so that the remains from each can be collected separately. Some "active comingling" of remains is unavoidable. Communal cremation is the burning of several animals at once, without any form of separation. (“Pet Cremation”)

Dr. Pierce toured the facility where her pet was cremated. She discovered that the oven used was exactly the same type as that used for cremating people, just designed for smaller forms. She found that the average pet cremation takes between one to three hours, depending on whether it’s an individual or group cremation. After the burning is completed and cooled, the remains must be processed.

The bones are very recognizable when they come out of the oven. ... The bones are fed into an industrial size metal blender and crushed into a powder. … Most of the powder was very fine, like ash you would clean out of your fireplace, but there were some slightly larger pieces, … and these were recognizable as little pieces of bone.

The remains are poured into a plastic bag and tightly closed with a zip-tie, so they won't spill out. ... Also in the urn with the remains is an ID tag—that was burned along with each animal. This serves as a way to make sure that the crematory doesn't lose track of which remains belong to which animal. (“Pennylane: A Look Inside a Pet Crematorium”)


A memorial that honors a deceased pet

Although some of this may sound alarming, you’ll find that by taking the time to get informed, do your homework and talk with the cremation vendor will provide you a great deal of comfort and understanding. It will make it that much easier to concentrate on ideas of how best to honor your departed companion animal. Our blog post on “’Pet Parents’ and How to Honor a Deceased Pet” is a good starting point for inspiration and ideas. And though the crematory will probably provide a temporary box to hold the ashes you may find you want to house the ashes in something more in line with your love for the pet. 

Pet cremation urns are often reasonably priced, are a joy to look at and give a feeling that the process is complete. With many urns ideal for dog cremation and cat cremation, you can select one that offers the most touching tribute to your lost pet. As one customer said, “In this time of loss of my most precious friend my pet chihuahua Spencer you have made it easy for me to have something special for his final resting place.”

J. Malec is a visual artist and writer whose work often deals with themes related to loss and healing. She lives in Minneapolis, and spends much of her time practicing permaculture in the city.