Pet Burial in the United States

David D Witt. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Dog that is born of bitch hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. — Waugh 1948:122

This chapter is a description of the pet burial industry in Western cultures and of the ongoing work and interaction found in typical pet cemeteries in the United States. Information was initially collected in the late 1970s using traditional library research and participant observation techniques in which I was able to observe interaction from my role as pet cemetery caretaker. I updated the body of observations again in 1995 and most recently, using Internet search techniques. Remarks on meaningful interaction taking place in pet cemeteries are drawn from participant observations of interaction between cemeterians, caretakers, and grieving pet owners and their families. Information about the unique relationships forged between all these actors and the memories of deceased animals is further described using observations from Web sites. The forms of such interaction and the use of helpful dramatic devices on the part of cemeterians are seen as a systematic use of emotions to the end result, a successful burial service.

Unlike the satirical account of the “Happy Hunting Ground,” the pet cemetery in Waugh’s (1948) novel, the pet cemetery business in America has grown from a part-time or a sideline venture for a few service providers to a legitimate business that seems to have found a niche in both local economies and the social psyche. Officially and ritualistically, burying a family pet is probably a logical extension of the evolving nature of human-animal relationships, especially since that relationship has increased in emotional intensity in the 20th century. As the role of animals has changed over time from specialized worker, beast of burden, and production tool to that of companion and member of the family, the social conception of animals has been transformed to object of affection and love. At least for some pet owners, pet cemeteries fill a culturally condoned need. Although there are examples of highly lucrative cemetery operations, such as a $1-million-per-year enterprise in Northern California’s Napa Valley, many pet cemetery operations are small businesses, with low overhead and dedicated spirits. This chapter is a description of pet burial as a legitimate business and of interaction between pet cemeterians and bereaved pet owners as they solve the problem of dispatching deceased animal companions to the “other side.” The modern human-animal relationship after the death of a pet becomes a complex drama, as the pet owner, driven by crisis, involves situationally significant others (i.e., veterinarians, grief therapists, interment specialists, casket manufacturers, makers of grave markers, and the deity) in their personal grieving process.

What follows is a description of the pet cemetery industry as it exists in the United States today. Observations are detailed concerning the ostensible and the more private motives behind the behavior of the principal actors, the ranges of facilities and services available, responsibilities of those charged with perpetual care of gravesites, how cemetery owners and caretakers perform their duties, and how they feel about their work. The data, collected via a combination of direct (as a pet cemetery caretaker) and indirect (library and Internet research) observations, also reveal that interaction and attitudes appear to follow a relatively predictable pattern.

Evidence for a Cultural Precedence for Pet Burial

Advertised as America’s oldest pet cemetery, Hartsdale Canine Cemetery in New York (established in 1896) is the final resting place to over 40,000 animals. In 1976 there were, by estimates from the president of the International Association of Pet Cemeteries (IAPC), between 200 and 300 pet burial operations in the United States, with association membership extending into Australia, Canada, and England. In 2003, the IAPC Web site ( listed among its members approximately 120 cemeteries, with an additional 20 cremation-only services and 50 different pet burial suppliers in all but a few U.S. states Carson (1972) makes an argument that animals in Western society began to enjoy an ideological anthropomorphism stemming from a published letter of protest sent by a Boston attorney, George T. Angell. Angell was angered over the treatment of two horses that were raced to death on Washington’s birthday, 1868. Thus was founded America’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, an increasingly institutionalized view of lower animals as innocents in need of humane protection, and growth in the anthropomorphic anecdote in the press (Carson 1972:121). This tradition may be making theoretical headway, at least among social scientists (Mullin 1999). Archer (1997) proposes an alternative Darwinian explanation for the increasingly stronger attachments humans have for animals as primarily a parent-child relationship, in which pets elicit caregiving behaviors. Belk (1996) refers to relationships with pets as metaphoric and suggests that pet owners vacillate between several views, from pets as pleasures to pets as toys to pets as family members.

Seen in light of a new atmosphere of kindness to pets, the “law of animal appeal” sensibly suggests that even the most learned among us will verbalize to animals with the dim hope that the animal will respond intelligently (Morris 1967:84). Similarly, the “baby face” phenomenon explains the human response to all creatures of diminutive size and young age. High, domed head, large eyes situated very low down, chubby cheeks, short and plump extremities, and ungainly movements are particularly attractive to humans (Hass 1970:71-72). The analogy to children is hardly subtle and is independently mentioned in survey research (Archer 1997).

Humankind’s relationship to animals has been the theme of countless folk tales, literary works, documentary films, and Hollywood productions, most finding a place in the culture’s growing fondness for animals as companions. In contrast, the dawn of civilization probably evolved from a symbiotic relationship between humans and animals, and

it is only a short leap from this primary circle to one which includes animal as beast of burden, animal as co-worker, animal as kin (totemism), animal as part of religious ideology, animal as experimental object, animal as legal object (to be owned as property and as entity with “rights” of its own), and animal as companion. (Palmer 1976:3)

But for many pet owners, the relationship is as personal as that with any human kin.

I’ve been a dog man all my life … had probably 25 pups since I was a boy. I’ve always had a way with animals, working with horses as a younger man, and I always had a dog—even bred Boston terriers for profit for a time. When they’d die, I’d usually bury them out in a field on our property—the one’s I really loved anyway. But this last one, Missy—I saved—actually stole her away from some people who were abusing her—she was the kindest, sweetest dog I’ve ever owned. When I got her, she was a mess—had stomach problems from all the beatings she’d endured from those bastards. So I just took her, brought her to the vet, and got her shots and advice about what was wrong with her. Had to feed her warm milk and rice cereal like she was an injured child—and it worked out well. I had Missy for 12 years before she developed some of the same problems I have at 72 years old. Her sight was fading; she had severe arthritis and began developing painful tumors. So I had to put her down. I had her buried. I don’t think I’ll ever own another dog again—Missy was just too damned hard to part with. (Personal communication with a pet owner in West Texas 1999)

These anecdotal sentiments have been born out in theory construction. Podrazik et al. (2000) assert that caregiving behaviors serve to form strong “interpersonal” human-animal relationships.

Other findings suggest that dog owners have a stronger bond with their pets (Zasloff 1996) than do other pet owners. Logically a stronger, more intimate relationship would suffer more in death. Gerwolls and Labott (1994) found that adjustment to the death of an animal companion was particularly difficult for pet owners and that as relationships become more intimate, the process for grief becomes more similar to loss of significant human relationships.

Historically, humans have found psychological comfort in the act of burying their animals, although the motivation for interment with humans is suspect. Animals were sometimes killed for burial with their departed masters, ostensibly for the sake of “broken-hearted” animals.

The Copper Age cemetery at Basatnaya in Romania had skeletons of dogs near the feet of several interments, and other instances of dogs buried with the dead …must surely have been to eliminate the risk of their pining away after the death of their owners. (Grinsell 1975:44)

Sometimes the animals were not killed outright but were made to suffer after their masters. Puckle (1926) asserts that death for the surviving beasts would have been more humane than some of the practices that spelled their fate. Sometimes animals were expected to overtly show signs of grief at the loss of their owners, and if they failed to perform,

the cruel practice of maiming or breaking the foreleg has been resorted to in order that the painful limp thus provided might give the unfortunate animal an appropriate appearance of grief. The Turks put mustard seeds in the nostrils of the poor beasts in order that its tears might be taken as a token of grief at the separation. (P. 59)

Prior to the beginning of the 20th century, virtually all animal burial of a ceremonial nature was probably done as part of a human burial for easing the grief of humans and not for the laying to rest of faithful friends. At the very end of the 19th century, the new human-animal relationship is documented in the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery and Crematory story (see The Hartsdale story begins in 1896 and is described in simple, heartwarming style. Hartsdale officials choose to point out the logical realization of a social need by the founder, a professor of veterinary medicine, rather than attempting to justify the practice of pet burial. The tone and narrative style of the Hartsdale story has become standard for most of the entities in the animal burial and cremation business. The idea here is that whether or not sociocultural changes in human-animal relationships have taken place is simply irrelevant when people are grieving.

Agents of the industry, usually only when asked, will use a version of historical fact in explaining the legitimacy of pet burial. Said one cemetery owner in an interview, “National Geographic has a dog cemetery that dates back to 5000 B.C., all laying on their left side, the way we do it too.” These off-handed interpretations of archaeological findings (i.e., that the burial of single animals as an expression of the human emotion of grief in tombs, burial mounds, sarcophagi, or other places of interment) may not be too far from the truth. Although it has been rare to find the practice outside the 20th century, theoretically troubling discoveries are being made. One such report describes dogs buried in close proximity to humans in Mesolithic burial sites. These animal graves were found complete with grave goods, corpse preparation—clearly, ceremonial burials that were possibly unrelated to a specific human death (Larrson 1994). It is at least temporally fitting that as animals were being redefined from machines to perform work to objects of affection, the practice of ceremonial burial has become a cultural possibility.

Christian philosophy characterizes humankind as having responsibility for the lives of animals, from the husbandry of Noah having dominion over the animals to New Testament statements of responsibility (e.g., “For every kind of beast, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the seas, is tamed by mankind” James 3:7). Pet cemeterians are quick to turn the parable of the “lost sheep” (Luke 15:3-6) on its ear, citing not the analogy of persons as sheep in the charge of shepherd Jesus, but the image of man’s responsibility for the well-being of animals. The animal-loving Christ is represented on one aluminum marker company’s slogan, “If Christ would have had a little dog, it would have followed him to the cross” (Engelhardt 1976:26). Similarly from a cemetery owner, “You know dog is God spelled backwards. There’s got to be something there.” Pet cemeterians and casket and marker suppliers tend to consistently agree on the major distinction between human and animal—that is the former’s responsibility for the latter, as evidenced in the following copy from a cemetery advertisement:

HE CAN’T DECIDE FOR HIMSELF, but you can … You can provide for your pet in every way, but have you chosen a final resting place for him? We offer you the opportunity to take the time to make plans BEFORE your pet leaves you. You can do this for your pet by mailing the coupon today.

One pet casket manufacturer noted that the burial of animals isn’t very extraordinary behavior, unless it is unique to love the living and grieve for the departed. The practice of using relatively standard, Christian religious beliefs to stimulate sales is certainly not unique to the pet burial industry. Business is business, and at least in the eyes of most pet cemeterians, a pet burial facility has to first be a business. One cemeterian referred to the earning potential of a pet cemetery.

Well, needless to say that everyone is a prospect if they have a pet because they all have to be put somewhere at sometime … what we’ve got to do is to make the public aware that it is just unthinkable to go through life with a pet and spend a lot of money on it, and love it, and have it a part of the household, and then when the end comes relegate it to a garbage heap.

To aid in bringing home the issue of carelessness in the death of our anthropomorphized “wee pals,” the pet burial industry continues to use in advertisements and brochures rather strongly sentimental images that tug at our heartstrings and play on our sympathies. In other words, there exists in our culture enough of a belief system that, with the right emphasis, can move the burial place of the family dog from the backyard to the pet memorial park and at considerable added expense. An added boost to this effort is the propagation of the belief that municipalities around the country do not allow burial of animals within city limits. Thus it is the trash heap or the pet cemetery.

Dramaturgy in Pet Burial

Viewing the pet cemetery as an integrated social work system composed of internal and external subsystems allows the observer to detail which tasks get performed and by whom. In what follows, the actual work is described in terms of its dramatic form following two prior sociological analyses: (a) Salomone (1972) outlined the work system of the funeral home; (b) Turner and Edgley (1976) described the drama of the American funeral as it is played on the stage of the theater of life. The actors described in both reports follow loosely structured scripts, perform choreographed body movements, and sometimes use exaggerated gestures to proceed toward their goal of a successful burial. Here, I use dramaturgy to describe the death and burial of pets as a way to reveal the actual work and attitudes of the actor-employee and not as any form of judgment or satire.

My initial telephone interviews with pet cemetery owners, product suppliers, and a professional pet cemetery association president provided a baseline of knowledge regarding the scope of the industry on a national scale. All interviews were cordial, with most volunteering to forward brochures, newspaper clippings, and trade newsletters. I gained long-term access to a nearby pet cemetery by exchanging labor as a groundskeeper and caretaker for the privilege of making firsthand observations and taking notes over a 3-month period.

Through participant observation within the work system, I recorded the nature of customer relations and tenor of secondary comments made by cemetery staff, along with other nuances not amenable to interview techniques. For example, in the course of time spent in the employ of the pet cemetery, I directly assisted in the burial of one human and four animals. I made observations in the cemetery office, watching the management at work, making sales, and fielding telephone inquiries. I also spent time on the grounds observing visitors to the cemetery who had come to maintain their continuing relationships with Frenchie, Jocko, Lobo, Princess, and Ranger, among others.

The setting for direct observations was a small owner-operator cemetery in West Texas, named, for purposes here, Paw Print Memorial Park. The cemetery serves primarily human clientele, with a portion of the grounds set aside for the remains of animals. The pet cemetery is physically separated from the rest of the park by a row of trees and is without signage. Separate books and ledgers are kept for each of the two cemeteries, and the animal park is considered a completely different enterprise by the owner. The species of animals interred ranged from parakeets to horses, with the predominant animals being dogs and cats.

Making the Choice to Inter

What motivates a pet owner to choose to bury his or her pet in such a formal manner, other than the general consensus among pet cemeterians that “people bury pets because they want to”? The secretary at Paw Print Memorial Park outlined the alternatives for disposal, which were reiterated by almost every person in the pet burial business:

We find that when people are close to their pets, they will spend the money to bury them. There are not many alternatives. Either the pet cemetery is used or burial in the backyard or let the vet dispose of them, which is not a very pleasant thought. They go to the dump!

The cemetery owner offered another point of view for the use of his facility:

We have been told that when people bury their pets in the backyard, that is too much of a reminder. Also, people move around quite a bit these days and they feel that if they bury their pets at home, the next person who lives in the house will not care for the grave. Most people who love their pets don’t like the idea of leaving them in the hands of someone who doesn’t care.

This cemeterian claims that the burial of family pets serves a therapeutic and inoculating function for the younger family members in that they are introduced to death in a manner that is healthy and instructive, a sentiment that perfectly aligns with practitioners of grief counseling: “When we lost our first dog, our daughter suddenly realized that if pets died, people must die too. She was as upset over that as she was over the death of her dog.”

Reasons given by pet owners for interment of their animals are wide ranging: “I hated that bird; we did it for the children.” “My wife wanted to bury the damned cat, and I felt obliged.” “That dog treated me better than my old lady ever did.” One woman, who was maintaining a family plot for her Yorkshires, was very emphatic:

I tried burying our first baby in the back of the house. But every time I looked out the kitchen window, either passing by or while I was washing the dishes, I had to see her out there. Even after a year, when the grass had grown back, I was still crying over that little girl. It was too upsetting for me. When we heard about this place, I had my husband dig her up and bring her out here.

Alternatively, the caretakers who performed the actual burials offered little in the way of empathy for clients’ reasoning. The ones observed here, both of whom have to live close to the dollar, found the spendthrift behavior of the pet cemetery patrons maddening:

They are crazy people to waste money on dogs. I would like to have the money they spend. I would take their dogs out into that cotton field and put their money in my pocket, if it was me. One woman brought a yardstick to the gravesite to measure the depth of the opening and another jayrow [sic] brought his buddy out to say a prayer over his dog. Me and Carlos had to go over behind the trailer to laugh.

Increasing Public Awareness

Despite varying motives for making the choice to inter pets, the concern of the cemeterian is that the choice is made in favor of business interests. To increase the percentages of such choice, the businessperson must increase the awareness of the services offered to the public. In the course of building a profitable business, the cemeterian relies on four basic awareness increasing techniques: word-of-mouth, referrals from area veterinarians, some print advertising (e.g., newspapers and brochures), and most recently, the Internet and World Wide Web.

We just feel that word-of-mouth is the best way to get the word around. Advertising in this area can get touchy. We try to stay in touch with the vets. They tell people about us. We have generated a lot of business from people who bury their pets here, then use the Tranquility Gardens facility for their human family members. We don’t put anything such as business cards or brochures in the vet’s office. That is sort of like putting cemetery brochures in an M.D.’s office. They would frown on that. But we do remind the vets from time to time that we are still around. (pet cemetery owner)

The veterinarian’s role is one of referent, with several veterinarians holding membership in the IAPC. When the final resting place of a deceased pet is inquired about, the veterinarian has the option of recommending a local pet cemetery as an alternative to the city dump. Some pet cemeterians have established routes to area vets, where routine carcass pickups are made on a weekly basis. The animals are often destined for mass cremation, which is allegedly a more humane option than the landfill. To recoup charges for pickups, the vet charges a fee to pet owners, ranging from a flat rate of $25 to $5 per pound.

Relatively low-key advertising is used by some cemeterians. Many have printed brochures illustrating the grounds with comforting words in the text. Gracefully constructed messages are usually the rule, commonly noting the convenient location of the park and the services available.

Bide-A-Wee Pet Memorial Park offers interment of pets with perpetual care. Located just 5 miles from the city at the junction of Highway 232 and Interstate 20, we offer a specially equipped car to pick up your departed loved one at your convenience. Complete burial services are available without further anxiety to you. ONE CALL DOES IT ALL. (from the brochure of a South Texas pet cemetery)

This kind of advertising may be used to make initial contact with potential customers.

With the institutionalization of the Internet as a mode for increasing public awareness in the late 1990s, Web sites have become an additional source of inexpensive advertising, with 25 members of IAPC boasting Web sites and an additional 14 listing an e-mail address only. A simple search of the Internet reveals thousands of Web sites related to pet burial and cremation, whereas one Web site index ( lists only 14 cemetery Web sites on its page. An additional pet burial association, the Accredited Pet Cemetery Society, while offering no listing of members, does assert a set of pet cemetery and crematory standards as well as a code of ethics to the industry ( There is even a Virtual Pet Cemetery (, an ongoing Internet enterprise with several hundred pets virtually interred in 34 “cyberplots,” all with epitaphs and some with photos of the deceased. Occasionally, the owner of the virtually interred makes up for lost time by posting a mass epitaph:

In loving memory of Rory, Pipper, Murphy, Honey, Snowy, Tinkerbell, Strawberry, Blackberry, Harry, Batman, Shadow, Rainbow, Saracen, Pearl, Blot, Dash, Wriggle, Runt, Bee, Di, and any others whose names have left me. Thank you for all the love and pleasure you gave me.

The Virtual Pet Cemetery has garnered awards, some dubious, for this free service, including the Society of Cats Golden Meow Award, the Pet Lovers Association Honor List, the NetVet Award, the Post-Mortem Page Highest Rating, Internet Roadkill Award, Recommended by Dr. Sue, Cool Dog Site of the Day, the Ring of Death Award, Pick of the Litter, Cool Pet Site of the Day, Bacon Favorites, and Dog Page Award.

Once contact has been established with a pet cemetery, the bereaved family makes an appointment with the cemetery office for coordination and selection of a service. At that meeting, costs are negotiated. “All that is required is the cost of the cemetery space. We also offer containers for those who want them, and permanent markers. Maybe half our families end up buying a permanent marker” (pet cemetery secretary).

Although all print media emphasizes ability to pay, customer-oriented service from sensitive workers, and having needs met “by private appointment only,” prices are not quoted freely. Some printed brochures contain similar phrases, such as, “The simple advertising of prices cannot in the greatest majority of cases serve to intelligently inform because of the many extenuating circumstances surrounding the loss of a beloved pet.” With a strong emphasis on pet owner responsibility in the life and death of pets and the obvious lack of pricing information, there exists an opportunity for cemeterians to subtly manipulate the emotions and loosen the pocketbooks of bereaved clients. In this regard, the pet burial business is quite similar to the human burial business—or business in general, for that matter.

Internal Work System and Use of Dramatic Devices

The internal work system of the pet cemetery is roughly divided into management (often a married couple owns and operates) and labor (one or two caretakers). Due to the small scale at which the majority of pet cemeteries operate, owners feel a responsibility to personally deal with customers. The management team serves to guide the clients through their “time of sorrow” with rehearsed speed and sincerity. Initial contact with the bereaved, usually by telephone, gives the opportunity to offer the full range of services. Here, the pet cemetery representative is most interested in getting the pet owner to commit to the burial. The impression given is that although the services are rendered in a speedy and reverent manner, this process is more complex than one might expect. For example, although all initial contacts suggest a low-cost disposition of pet remains, the least expensive service is only a little more emotionally rewarding than having an impersonal pickup and removal involving mass cremation or mass burial. Return of cremains, however, is considerably more expensive and usually requires a burial urn. Individual burial requires additional charges for opening and closing the grave, a perpetuity fee to dedicate the land, and sales tax. Charges for burial of an average-sized pet with few frills runs about $250.

At Paw Print Memorial, when an animal arrives at the cemetery, it is placed to the side of the offices in the coolest and shadiest spot, depending on the time interval between arrival and burial, to keep decomposition to a minimum. The cemetery owner directs these activities and takes an active role in physically placing the remains in temporary settings. Pet owners are ushered into the office for grief counseling Inside the offices, the host of burial options is displayed. Typically, increasingly expensive garden burial areas are available with names prone to alliteration (i.e., “Tranquility Terrace,” “Gentle Giants,” “City of Champions,” “Mighty Midgets,” “Kitty Korner”). A choice of caskets is offered, ranging from pressed paper to the high-quality products manufactured by the “pioneer of pet caskets” (see Figure 3). Finally, pet owners may choose from a range of grave markers or headstones, some quite elaborate. In the interest of maintaining consistency throughout the memorial park, pet owners are quietly urged to purchase headstones, caskets, and burial spaces that are price compatible.

Caretakers occupy what is perhaps the least grisly position in the work system. They are responsible for opening the graves, lowering the remains, and closing the grave. Their job is simple enough, except that concerned mourners and curious visitors sometimes compound the difficulty of their tasks by insisting on a grave that is deep enough and in a perfect rectangle, or that the pet’s head be placed toward the east, directly underneath the headstone or marker. Some common complaints directed toward caretakers from visitors follow along these lines: “Why’d you put that new grave so close to Aristotle?” “Why is the dirt on Ranger’s grave a different color from the others?” “Someone stole the flowers I placed on Pookie’s grave!” In short, the caretakers at Paw Print Memorial view visitors and mourners as nuisances to be endured. When these people arrive, Carlos, Mike, and Junior tend to vanish into the shrubbery. The interaction between the principals can be better understood by describing an actual service in dramaturgical terms—backstage and front-stage regions are used (Goffman 1959).

The cemetery proper may be considered all backstage for the visitor while alone. It is supposedly designed to give an atmosphere of peace and privacy for moments of communion with the dead. In the case of a pending funeral service, until the arrival of the funeral party, the entire cemetery (office and grounds) is conceptually viewed as backstage. Rehearsals for the coming service are conducted and preparations are made. On one occasion, a deceased cocker spaniel had arrived at the cemetery, and was momentarily set to lie in state, and hopefully retard rigor mortis, in the shade of two elm trees. Caretakers were assembling digging equipment, spades and shovels, and lowering straps. Inside the office, the secretary was locating brochures and order forms for grave markers to ensure smooth introductions. The cemeterian had placed a spare infant casket in the office, although the pet owner had declined his first offer to supply any container.

When the funeral party arrived (in this case, it consisted of one red-eyed, teenage girl), the cemetery personnel appeared to snap to attention much like the enlisted personnel in a military barracks when the officer suddenly appears. Nervous whispers emerged from the caretakers, “I hope she’s not a moaner.” “I bet she won’t make it all the way through.” The cemeterian intercepted the girl as she entered the office and suggested that they go to view the body. (From this point on, front-stage behavior was detected only when the girl was present in a region. When she left an area, the other occupants relaxed into backstage behavior until they saw her again and were “on” again).

The cemeterian’s job at this point was to help the girl maintain her composure so she would be receptive to his comments. The girl said, “I brought her favorite toy to go with her,” and as the box and bag were opened, the girl probed for a comfortable position for Princess’s rubber mouse. The pet owner’s comments continued as she handled her pet, “She’s so stiff, I didn’t realize she’d be so stiff. Poor baby, we lost dad this year, too. They are probably both watching us from heaven right now.”

The cemeterian pulled the girl away after a few minutes of sobbing to have her select the final resting place. In the middle of the cemetery, he pointed out some choice spots and suggested, “This space here. Princess will get some sun in the mornings and shade in the afternoons.” The girl agreed with the selection through her tears. She was guided back to the office where she could calm herself while Carlos and son prepared the grave. The girl was provided with a chair, which, when occupied, led her to view a spare casket with its pink and white satin ribbons, bedding, and pillow. Directly above the casket was a three-dimensional picture depicting Christ holding a sheep and standing in the midst of a group of little children. Moments later, the girl asked to use the phone to call her mother, who was too overcome with grief to attend. The girl was led into a side office and the door was closed. Backstage at the reception room, the cemeterian told the secretary to order another casket. The girl emerged from the private call to her mother with a joint decision to give Princess the best. Smiles and words of approval at the judgment were exchanged all around, and the dog was brought inside for “dressing.” Princess was poured into the container and the fit was good except for her feet, which stuck out of the perimeter of the casket. They refused to be bent. The cemeterian suggested that the girl “just work with them and they’ll go.” She did, and they did too, barely.

The remaining portion of the service was rather uneventful. Princess’s body was committed to the earth amid sobs and remembrances. “She was such a good baby. It’s been a bad year for us. First daddy, then I wrecked my Volkswagen, and now this. She slept with me for 14 years, every night.” The girl departed and a backstage atmosphere returned to Paw Print Memorial Park. After the service, conversation took the form of ex post facto role distance for the cemeterian, and when the subject of the animal’s stiffening extremities was mentioned, he shared a reflection of an earlier crisis:

One time, back when Dad was handling things, he promised to bury a German shepherd in one of the metal boxes we were using at the time. That shepherd weighed over 100 pounds and had been dead a long time. Just before the owner came with the dog, Dad told me and the boys that we were to get that dog in the box anyway we could while he kept the owner busy with marker selections. The three of us had to turn the box on its end and pound the dog into the box by banging both against the ground.

When asked if the legs had to be broken, as implied, the cemeterian smiled but declined to answer.

The summary of a particular service in this section is typical of behavior in that the degree of emotion and role-playing is modal. Extreme behavior at services ranges from nonattendance to whole family attendance with graveside prayers made by an official.

The External Work System and Dramatic Devices

The actors not directly connected to the cemetery, but a part of the succession of events that compose a service, can be seen in two distinct categories—the veterinarian’s referral role and product suppliers. The veterinarian often suggests burial as an alternative to the animal shelter’s disposal policy. Having a facility such as Paw Print Memorial also offers the veterinarian an opportunity to ease the possible ill feelings of the pet owner concerning his animal’s demise. Another cemetery owner explained the position of the veterinarian without a cemetery nearby:

Most every veterinary will agree and say when he’s asked by a bereaved pet owner, “Doctor, what are you going to do with him?” They have tears in their eyes most generally. The doctor will turn around and start fiddling with his test tubes and things and say, “I’ll have to dispose of him the best way I can. Either the city picks him up or he goes to a rendering plant. It’s all we have.” (from NBC Television’s Weekend program, May 15, 1976)

With a facility available, the doctor can offer the family a choice.

The second group of external actors includes the suppliers of caskets and bronze markers. They offer a variety of casket styles, lettering on markers, and marker sizes. Because their success in business depends on the success of pet cemeteries, it is safe to assume that advertisements and promotional materials for pet cemetery supplies are intended to motivate the consumer to inter their pets. A sample of the Faithful Friend Pet Casket brochures announces its latest item. The graphics depict a new casket with background of greenery, shrubs, and grassy fields. The message reads:

Nature’s green, plus a golden touch—all caskets made with a snowy white interior in your choice of satin, crepe, or velvet. Vaults are of white, with the same frost of gold, and made of the same high impact polystyrene, but of heavier material for greater protection. For those who want the best for a loved pet.

Faithful Friend products are also listed on the World Wide Web and can be reviewed prior to purchase at the Web site from the online brochure A Comprehensive Source for the Pet Deathcare Industry ( If cremation is preferred, a special product known as Keepsake Jewelry “is designed to be worn and usually holds less than one cubic inch of cremains.” Personalization, bereaved Web surfers are advised, is optional and may involve an additional charge. These and many other products are offered by Kelco Supply Company ( html).

A brochure for a grave marker manufacturing firm displays on its cover two lovable kittens nestled in slumber in the paws and under the belly of a sleeping puppy. Simply titled Pet Memorials, the advertisement is for metal markers for every type of pet, with suggested epitaphs ranging from the owner’s hope for an afterlife (“Wagging Its Tail in Heaven,” “Remembering a Tiny Angel,” “Gone to Heaven”) to anthropomorphism (“So Small, So Sweet, So Soon,” “Our Darling Baby,” and “Our Wee Pal”) to the brutal facts (“Killed by a Hit and Run Driver”). Taken together, the veterinarian and the assorted suppliers of trade goods work independently of each other to further the advancement of the industry. They are, along with the internal work system of pet cemeteries around the country, providing what is perceived by some to be a needed, worthwhile, and comforting service. The industry has moved from the fringes toward the center of the American psychology of death.

Life after Death

Among those who choose a funeral service for their pet, it is well accepted that a properly directed and coordinated ceremony has therapeutic value for the pet’s surviving “family.” The ceremony itself can serve as a termination point of a long-standing relationship for the living, after which they are better able to get on with the business of daily life (Cowles 1985). A visitor to the cemetery in West Texas pointed this out:

Fawn had been in the hospital on and off for over a year. She had cancer and it was affecting her kidneys. I was having to spend a lot of money and time with her, watching her suffer so much. When the doctor finally called to tell us she was dead, we brought her out here right away. I wanted to get it over with.

In the privacy of the funeral service, people are allowed great latitude in their behavior. They may do or say something that would be considered quite abnormal in other settings. One young girl, who appeared to be very depressed, remained in silence on her knees while her dog’s burial site was prepared and the animal was finally laid to rest. In other instances, distressed owners were observed stroking their dead pets and carrying on one-sided conversations while waiting for their pet’s ritual to begin. When long-term human-animal relationships are interrupted by the death of the pet, the owner may choose to continue the friendship via regular visits to the animal’s gravesite:

Mr. Jones lost his collie five years ago. He’s been out here every week since. I can only remember a couple of times he’s missed. Sometimes he just sits in the car a few minutes and then drives away.


These observations show that a cultural heritage exists, by and large in Western cultures, that legitimizes the burial of animals in their own gravesites after the fashion of the institutionalized funeral ceremony. Coupled with what some have termed a natural affinity for subhuman species, humankind’s inability to resist anthropomorphistic affection for individual pets helps to provide the cultural groundwork for limited growth in the pet cemetery industry. Revealed here is a work system composed of internal and external component parts that operate together to provide the most comforting services. Although the opportunity for exploiting the feelings of grief-stricken pet owners exists, the work system does not encourage it inherently. The pet cemetery industry serves the interests of each of the actors involved. Cemeterians and cohort suppliers stand to earn a living while making available a service of perceived social worth. Caretakers are provided employment, and veterinarians have an opportunity to suggest a decent form of disposition of remains to grieving pet owners. Pet owners may take advantage of the flexibility of the burial facility, depending on their level of sadness. As pets, even in death, animals are perceived to offer companionship and life-giving experiences to their masters.