Last week Phil C’de Baca cremated a llama. He soothed the sobbing owner, and stood, respectfully still, to mourn its passing.
The llama was unusual. Phil mainly deals with cats and dogs, though he’s handled extra-large animals when needed. The biggest would be Zonker, a 440-pound epileptic sea lion from the Sausalito Marine Mammal Center. In case you’re confused here, C’de Baca is the owner of Pet’s Rest, an animal funeral home in Colma, CA.
Established in 1947, they’ve cremated over 100,000 animals, with 14,000 being buried on the property. A walk through the graveyard is a journey into children’s book titles. “Benny, Good Boy!” is written in cursive on one headstone, with a color picture of the panting terrier. “Poochy,” reads another. “Fluffy Molenda, 1969-1983” a third. Some headstones feature the Star of David, others have stone-carved paw prints and bones. Many have fresh flowers.
Currently 76% of 18-24 year-olds in America share their home with a pet. And around 65% of all American households have a dog or cat. That’s an estimated 77 million dogs and 88 million cats. These animals become our friends, our family. And we’re spending around $60 billion a year on them. That’s a 185% increase since 2001. In terms of priority, a 2011 survey found that we spend more on our pets per year than alcohol, men’s clothing, or our phone bills.
As valued family members, it’s natural to mourn their passing. But this has led to a surprise business boom inside the funeral industry, as more companies start catering specifically to the pet loss market. Specialist services, designer urns, turning remains into diamonds, you name it.
The funeral industry as a whole is currently valued at $20.7 billion a year, and an average human funeral costs around $8,000. Prices are lower for pets (smaller caskets, different ceremonies) but they can still add up to a fair sum.
There are no solid numbers on profits, but combining data about the number of pet funerals held, and a (consciously low) average cost, places revenue at $100 million a year and up.
“If you’re in this business right now you’re just sailing with the wind right at your back,” Tom Flynn, the president of Hillcrest-Flynn Pet Funeral Home and Crematory told Bloomberg. He said profits have raised 25% year over year since opening in 2006.
Pet funerals are a nationwide trend. Around 15% of funeral directors in America offer pet services, Jessica Koth from the National Funeral Directors Association told me. She said this number has risen from 10% in 2011, in part for the demand from families.
“Many people see pets as members of their family and, broadly speaking, statistics show the amount of money people spend on their pet is increasing,” she said. “When a family loses a pet who is a beloved member of their family, they want to do something special to honor their furry (or scaly, or feathered) friend.”
It’s understandable that people mourn their pet’s death. You feel like a part of you has been cut out. But at the same time, it’s hard to condone excessively lavish events, where people spend thousands so Fluffy has a comfortable afterlife.
But the bonus is that ceremonies can be cathartic, giving people a chance to move on. In 2013, around 500,000 pets had funerals in America. Prices vary dramatically depending on location. The most expensive on record might be for a Tibetan Mastiff in China, which cost $733,000 and included a jade coffin and a plot of land at the foot of a mountain range. But this isn’t normal.
At Pet’s Rest, cremation in a wood urn for a pet weighing under 20 pounds starts at $130. For burial, the smallest lot is $550, plus a fee for a wooden box or custom casket. And there’s a $30 annual charge. At Bit of Heaven in Houston, a small plot is $625, and yearly maintenance is $30. They sell a VIP (Very Important Pet) casket for $340, available in pink or blue. At Forrest Pet Run Tributes, cremations are $120-$300, depending on size. Cremations start at $195 at Hillcrest-Flynn and include a custom clay paw print.
These prices might not seem that high, but they represent the most basic of services. Many companies are capitalizing on people’s desire for more, similar to how they upsell at human funeral homes.
C’de Baca said this is because a pet’s funeral is most people’s first experience with death. He explained there’s no legal requirement to bury pets; people are here by choice. “You have to deal with Uncle Charlie,” he said. “A dog could go in the garbage.” He likes to take people through their options slowly, let them grasp their choices. “People are vulnerable when this happens, we take pride in talking them out of going overboard. It doesn’t make a difference if you use an expensive casket or a cheap one.”
But many companies are creating products targeting grieving owners, suggesting that what they are selling will show how much you cared.
The profiteering pet loss products
The obvious place to begin is with coffins and urns. Broke people can go to Walmart (which started listing funeral items in 2009) and spend anywhere from $27 for the most basic of goblet-styled urns to $599 for an Official Major League Baseball Urn (all teams are available). Perfect Memorials offers $500 cast bronze cremation urns featuring small statues and $550 ones from hand-blown glass that look like they should hold flowers. Pet caskets in blue metal are $1,400 at Memorials’ web shop.
“Metal pet caskets offer solace for bereaved pet owners, as well as a dignified way to lay the pet to rest. Providing our beloved companions with a peaceful final rest can help us with closure, and to take a step down the long road of acceptance.”Memorials
And if you’re really tasteless you can invest $50 on a child’s paint-your-own-pet-urn-kit. Yes, a real thing.
Then we have the headstones. For $400 Everlife Memorials will laser etch an image of your beloved pet onto black granite. If this sounds like too much trouble, Peternity offers to scatter the ashes from the sky, the cost varying on location: $2500 if you want them dropped over the Sierra Nevadas, $900 for SoCal deserts.
“Like our human loved ones who are cremated, the cremated remains of pets can be incorporated into a variety of memorial items, such as cremation jewelry (a locket or bracelet) that holds a small amount of the cremated remains,” Jessica Koth from the National Funeral Director’s Association said. “The cremated remains can be turned into a diamond; or incorporated into a glass objet d’art or other memorial item.”
“Pets have the market cornered on unconditional love,” C’de Baca said. And it’s true, the trusting look in your dog’s eyes is pretty much with you for life. When we lose someone we love we’ll pay pretty much anything to make the hurt stop. Sure, it can be cathartic to have an event to memorialize their life, but when it starts being about $$ and less about mending hearts, it’s time to re-evaluate what’s going on.
Spending time in bereavement counseling is a healthier outlet than picking satin sheets for a tomb. This might be big business, but we know a racket when we see one.