Our pets are now likely to be immortalised rather than given an unremarkable burial. Industry players say that shows our growing sensitivity to their important role in our lives. Nadine Porter reports.
Lying by the couch, Monty looked as if he was sleeping peacefully.
But the shaggy, chocolate-colored, ball of love who won a nation’s heart had died as he slept.
For almost a decade, the 11-year-old giant schnauzer cross had been animal behaviourist Mark Vette’s beloved sidekick on our television screens.
World-famous, Monty helped spearhead an SPCA / Mini campaign after he and two other rescue dogs became the first canines in the world to drive a car, in 2013.
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Trained to learn up to 100 new behaviors so he could drive a Mini, Monty showed rescue dogs were every bit as clever as their pedigree counterparts.
After his exploits went viral, Monty featured on The Late Show with David Letterman in the United States.
“That was his work… transforming dogs’ lives for the better,” Vette says.
And now, with Monty’s death, Vette, like many dog owners, has had to consider how best to honor Monty, who was “as much human as he was dog”.
A Zen Buddhist, Vette prefers to return pets to nature with a burial. He likes to plant a tree and fruit plants on the same site so the animal transforms into the fruit and supplies oxygen to the tree.
However, practicalities meant Monty would be cremated, and a small shrine erected in Vette’s garden.
“It will look out over the sea which he loved, and we will scatter him through nature, which he enjoyed.”
As part of Vette’s ritual when he loses a pet, he meditates regularly at the shrine, or where the pet is buried.
“That helps me to never let go of the love and joy he brought me.”
In the 45 years Vette has been working with animals, he noticed that the way we grieve and remember our pets has changed.
It was initially far more utilitarian – rooted to a pastoral farming nation bound in producing animals for slaughter.
Now we are developing a “sensitivity” to all living things, particularly our pets.
“We are starting to see people value these animals at a level that has never been done before.”
Elaborate ceremonies a part of our past
It was a cortège funeral fit for a socialite in 1911. As bystanders looked on, four horse-drawn carriages passed through the streets of Philadelphia, in the United States.
Sitting on a frame at the front of the procession was a tiny casket containing Gyp, a 19-year-old cat who had “purred wistfully up to the moment of his death”.
The elaborate funeral had been pre-planned by Gyp’s owners, the Kirby family, who had even purchased a cemetery lot in advance.
The previous year a Cardiff woman’s grief at the death of her pet Java monkey saw her apply for permission to have Jenny buried in one of the public parks in the Welsh city.
When Jenny became ill, Mrs Mitchell paid to have a doctor attend, and when the monkey subsequently died, a “handsome coffin” displayed in Mrs Mitchell’s front room.
Mourning cards were printed for the “dear creature, so intelligent that she seemed almost human”.
Nearer to home, in 1940, a Sydney society woman’s pet dog had a funeral costing 30 guineas. The coffin was mounted with silver, lined with silk and placed in a hearse before being driven out of the city to the site where the dog was born.
But one memorial in 1924 showed just how much a pet can mean to its owners. Princess Lobanoff Rostovski left £ 1000 in her will for the erection of a memorial in the Paris Dog Cemetery to her dog.
New Zealanders are not immune to providing burial space for our pets.
The first pet cemetery opened in Weedons, in Canterbury, in 1964. Pet lovers could secure a burial plot for about $ 73 in today’s money.
Brian and Hannah Tamaki could not stand the thought of burying their pet Pomeranian Lulu when she died so they had her preserved. (First published November 2018)
Although burial and cremation have always been used, taxidermy was also popular in the Victorian age and at the turn of the 20th century.
An Evening Post story from 1923 reports on a Baltimore taxidermist who was amazed at the “love some people have for animal pets and the sacrifices they will make to have them mounted as keepsakes”.
The taxidermist noted, however, that some “nice old ladies” would change their minds once the shock of grief wore off.
“Before the work would have been completed they would have acquired some new pet and would have recovered from their distress at the loss of the old one.”
The strangest animal the man had mounted, the paper reported, was a school teacher’s goldfish.
Preserving a pet for life
In a Timaru bar, Hector stands bright-eyed in his smart Swanndri coat, ready to receive his adoring fans.
The little jack russell is as iconic in the South Canterbury town in death as he was alive, after owner Tim Black decided to take Hector to a taxidermist after he was accidentally run over by a farm vehicle.
Before his death in 2017, Hector frequented several pubs in Timaru, escorting punters home, and even made it on stage at a new year festival in Lake Hawea.
Now his name resides above the door at the Hector Black’s Lounge Bar.
Although the idea of taxidermy is unappealing to some, Black says customers adore their patron.
“I look at it like he’s still there.”
The family take him with them on holiday at Christmas, and he returned home for lockdown, Black says.
Black suggests anyone considering taxidermy, which cost him about $ 3000, should make sure they prepare by taking measurements when the pet is alive to help with preparing a mould.
Although it is a costly process, Black wouldn’t change it. “He’s part of our family.”
A new way to remember
In a Christchurch commercial premises, two golden retrievers quietly pad around a start-up business that is part of the growing trend of commemorating our pets.
They watch on as entrepreneur Peter Russell checks the ‘nursery’ – a small dark room full of shelving containing what looks like white stones.
It’s a funeral parlor of a different type, offering a service that turns a pet’s ashes into a smooth stone.
With a patent pending, Russell has already been inundated with customers since he began Reterniti.
The stones use only the pet’s ashes and an organic binder, and are engraved with the pet’s name and date of death.
The cost ranges from $ 299 for small pets like rabbits to $ 599 for horses, and the process takes about four weeks.
Russell has been developing the technology for more than two years with the help of a grant from Callaghan Innovation. Its scientists helped create the process.
The journey began long before that though, when Russell’s golden retriever, Hogan, 11, died while the family were living in Sydney.
Hogan was the center of family life, so Russell looked for options to keep him close. He found cremation was the only option, but the cardboard box containing Hogan’s ashes in a zip lock bag seemed deeply impersonal.
His experience was further tainted after he placed the ashes under a rock in a local park that Hogan loved to play in. When the family visited two years later, they found the rock was gone and a toilet block had been erected in its place.
Working backwards, and after much trial and error, scientists came up with a method that allowed ashes to be turned into a stone-like object.
Sumner resident Kathy Pascoe ended up cremating her cat Sooki, and dogs Rufus and Tilly, within eight months of each other in 2020.
Scattering their ashes just didn’t feel right, she recalls.
After hearing about Reterniti, Pascoe took the boxes in and asked for two stones – one for Sookie and one combining Rufus and Tilly, so they could be together forever, as they were in life.
Now Pascoe finds herself comforted by having Sookie on her office desk and her dogs in the living room. In some ways it feels like they haven’t left, she believes.
“It’s beautiful… you never want to forget or replace your pets. They are so much a part of your life. ”
The changing view on grief
For 15 years, Gaelynn Beswick has seen first-hand the impact the death of a loved family pet can have.
She trained as a counselor after losing a child, and had a stint running a boarding kennel before deciding to amalgamate her skills.
Her Christchurch-based company, Loving Tributes, offers pet cremations and a space where owners can celebrate their pet’s life.
Families often spend time saying goodbye before handing their pet over and some will share memories, she says. One family even brought a guitar and sang songs.
The service has become increasingly popular, she says. It costs $ 225 for pets under 10 kilograms and up to $ 370 for animals up to 30kg.
Beswick says it’s important for owners to be allowed to grieve however they want to.
“It makes it so much easier.”
In Waimate, Anna Miles is busy offering horse owners long-term keepsakes of their mounts by braiding horse hair into Victorian-styled rosettes, jewels and other mementos.
Equine Mementos began in 2019 after Miles lost two favorite horses.
She made rosettes with their tail hair, and soon began making them for friends and family. Then she moved to pendants.
Now she fields inquiries from across New Zealand. Occasionally, she works with human hair, or fur from other animals, but her heart lies in helping fellow horse lovers overcome their loss.
“I feel really honored to do that for them.”