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Originally published Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 7:06 PM

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Some pets given funerals

Funeral directors began providing pet memorial care about five years ago.

The Record (Hackensack N.J

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Indy was Deborah Horton-Vessels' loyal companion and constant joy. The border collie mix saw Horton-Vessels through a cross-country move, boyfriends, jobs and 15 years of ups and downs.

So when the blind and ailing dog died two weeks ago — at 6 in the morning, in his owner's bed, in his owner's arms — Horton-Vessels was devastated. She hadn't brought herself to confront the possibility of losing Indy, much less prepare for it.

Not knowing where to turn, she called the vet.

"If you can get the dog here, we'll send him out for cremation," she was told.

But Horton-Vessels, who works in Manhattan as a travel consultant, does not have a car.

Feeling alone, she went on Google and came across a nearby business called Pet Rest in Peace.

Kurt Larsen answered the phone. He told Horton-Vessels he'd pick up Indy and do the cremation himself, then return the cremated remains. Just Indy's remains — no others mixed in.

"Did Indy have a favorite blanket?" Larsen asked.

"He liked this particular towel," Horton-Vessels said.

At Larsen's gentle suggestion, Horton-Vessels laid Indy on the towel on the foyer floor. She said her goodbyes, and waited.

Larsen arrived at 10 a.m. with a pet carrier. He wore a dark suit and overcoat. He looked like a funeral director, and for good reason. He is one.

Funeral directors pride themselves on serving families at the most difficult time. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, to find some funeral directors sending Duke and Fluffy on their final journeys — with the same reverence they do for Grandma and Grandpa. After all, the bond between human and animal is ironclad.

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Funeral directors began providing pet memorial care, in most cases cremation, about five years ago. The St. Petersburg, Fla., mortuary that pioneered the practice cremates 2,500 pets a year. A 2008 article in the National Funeral Directors Association magazine made the case for branching out to pets: Don't worry what others might think, the author counseled funeral directors. You won't be trivializing human loss. You're here to serve the living, and the living are grieving their four-legged loved one.

"I had one man who said his wife told him, 'You love the dog more than you love me.' And he didn't answer her," said Jim Marrocco, owner of Marrocco Memorial Chapel in Clifton, N.J., which introduced pet cremation services in August.

Marrocco added on to his funeral chapel to accommodate the pet division, a franchise called Faithful Companion. The new construction, which has a separate entrance, encompasses two cremation furnaces and a cheerful room where owners can say goodbye. Funeral homes in New Jersey are barred from operating human crematories and cannot commingle human and animal remains, but the law allows them to operate animal crematories.

Kurt Larsen and his brother, Eric, are funeral directors for Volk Leber Funeral Home in Teaneck, N.J. In October, they and Kurt's wife, Caroline, opened Pet Rest in Peace Pet Memorial Center and Crematory near the Secaucus shopping outlets. Pet Rest in Peace, which is not owned by Volk Leber or any other funeral home, has three cremation furnaces and its own bright space for final goodbyes.

The New Jersey Board of Mortuary Science, which licenses funeral directors, believes Jim Marrocco and the Larsen brothers are the only funeral directors in the state handling pet arrangements.

Marrocco, whose funeral chapel has been in business for 111 years, said he signed with Faithful Companion, which was started by a Michigan funeral home, as "another way to reach out to our families." Faithful Companion by Marrocco has cremated more than 150 pets, including a guinea pig, a hamster and a parakeet, in its first four months. Sixty percent are private cremations and the rest are communal cremations of animals sent by veterinarian offices.

The Larsen brothers were in the pet products business before they became funeral directors. Kurt says their pet memorial center allows the pet owner, rather than the veterinarian, to steer the disposition of the animal.

"Veterinarians are supposed to be saving animals' lives, not make funeral arrangements," he said. "We will do anything that a funeral home does for a human, with the same level of professionalism — everything except embalming."

Indeed, Pet Rest in Peace and Faithful Companion operate much like funeral homes. Both transport the deceased. Both provide space for those wishing to hold a memorial service or a wake (such events, however, have yet to catch on, and most pet owners choose not to be present for the cremation). Both return the remains in a standard container; Pet Rest in Peace's has a paw print design. For an extra charge, they offer fancier urns. And both help pet owners deal with their grief by giving them literature and allowing them to post online tributes to their companions.

The businesses charge differently. For a private cremation, Faithful Companion charges $345 regardless of the animal's size ($150 for the guinea pig, hamster and parakeet). Pet Rest in Peace charges by weight, beginning at $262.30 for an animal under 30 pounds. Pet owners who choose communal cremation, in which the remains are not returned, pay less.

Wayne funeral director Robert C. Moore IV, past president of the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association, says he hasn't heard of other funeral directors planning to follow the lead of Marrocco and the Larsens. And he says he'll be sticking with human arrangements at Moore's Home for Funerals.

"But I understand the loss of a pet can be devastating," he added. "If the families can get comfort from a funeral director, then it's a valuable service our industry can provide."

The expense of offering that service, however, could discourage many funeral professionals. Marrocco and the Larsens say they invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their enterprises — mostly to create the space and to purchase cremation furnaces. Plus, many funeral homes are in residential areas, so the installation of furnaces could run afoul of neighbors.

Brooklyn psychotherapist Wallace Sife, author of "The Loss of a Pet," says it's a good thing funeral directors are getting involved — the more support the better.

He became an expert on the subject out of necessity after his miniature dachshund, Edel Meister, died of congestive heart failure 20 years ago. "Despite my own Ph.D. in psychology, I was a total basket case, and I had to stop and figure out why I was having such a strong reaction," Sife said.

He did not have the benefit of much literature about dealing with pet loss: "There were only three books on the subject, and they were all scholarly works."

Today, there are far more resources available, including the nonprofit organization Sife founded, the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement.

"Pet bereavement has become much better accepted by the public," he said. "People realize now they don't have to hide their grief."

Deborah Horton-Vessels, an only child, says she grieved as deeply for her dog as she did for her parents. That Indy received the same care and attention from a funeral director as her parents did brought her comfort.

"It's not just a dog or a cat," she said. "It's your family."

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