Pet cemeteries: They are growing in popularity with people wanting to say a formal goodbye

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From hamsters to leopards, beloved pets are increasingly getting a send-off more akin to the kind a human would have.

Alongside the cats, dogs and rabbits in Chestnut Lodge pet cemetery and crematorium, lie bearded dragons, an emu and a leopard.

The animal burial and cremation site has been going since 1974 in the town of East Grinstead, West Sussex, and owner Stephen Mayles has been working there for 34 years.

“We do cats and dogs mostly,” he says. “Lots of rabbits, quite a lot of reptiles, and then we’ve got the ashes of an emu. A girl who worked at a local wildlife centre was given one as a gift when she left. She was very fond of him, so when he died she had him cremated. We’ve also done a couple of cremations for big cats from a wildlife sanctuary.”

Mayles thinks that people have always been focused on pets being part of the family, but it’s become more mainstream and accepted now to want to bury or cremate a pet in a method akin to how we treat humans

“I think that a lot of people didn’t really know places like this existed. I think also people have been quite rightly suspicious of what happens at pet cemeteries, as pet cremation has a chequered history,” he says.

Rest in peace

There are some services that charge for a level of respect and care that they don’t deliver, whereas Chestnut Lodge – which is accredited by the Association of Private Pet Cemeteries and Crematoria – is respected for treating each animal with respect during the cremation process and giving them a personalised send-off.

The love humans feel for pets is no modern frivolity. A recent study by Eric Tourigny, an archaeology lecturer at Newcastle University, looked at more than 1,000 gravestones in pet cemeteries in London and Newcastle covering more than a century from 1881. His analysis, published in the academic journal Antiquity, highlighted how Victorians pioneered pet cemeteries, viewing their favourite animals as close friends and family members.

Our history of loving pets is no more evident than at The Old Blue Cross Pet Cemetery in Greenwich, London, a small peaceful place lined with gravestones date back to the 1930s, including one for Flossie, a dog who died in 1939 at the age of 16. The inscription reads: “From six weeks we had her but age crept on with time; a dear old girl that we loved so well she will always be in our minds.”

The historical site no longer does burials, and is now a memorial full of blue plaques made to commemorate pets. Liz McDermott, chair of the community group Friends of Pet Cemetery, who has been unearthing the site’s wartime history and restoring the gravestones, was the first person to have a plaque made for her cat, who passed away five years ago. It says: “To Polly, the house without you is not a home.”

“I was delighted, as I still miss her five years later,” McDermott says. She did recently make an exception to the “no burial” rule: in the summer a “very distressed” woman called her, saying that her five-year-old son’s rescue hamster had died, and she wanted to know how much it would cost to bury the animal.

When she was told the site no longer buried animals, she was upset, as she lived in a flat with no garden to bury the hamster in, and her partner and father to her children had died in January and things were difficult.

“This mum, with so much to occupy her beyond the hamster, is showing her kids that any life, whatever it is, is to be respected,” McDermott says. The family travelled across London to bury the pet, and put a small cross above him that said: “RIP Coco Pops.”

Paying respect

Robert Christie, an intensive-care nurse in London, says he is something of a cynic, “hyper alert, to anything that seems maudlin”. But having a plaque made at the Old Blue Cross for the animals he and his family have lost has been hugely helpful.

“It reminds me that my partner Mark, my mum, my sister and I are not alone, nor unique, in the love we’ve known and shared with the animals in our lives. Others knew this same love and bond years before I was born, and will again years after I have gone. In a world of bewildering change, I find this thought wholly comforting. It gives me hope for the future and for humanity.”

The cost of saying goodbye

A burial at Chestnut Lodge costs between £580 for a “tiny” animal weighing under 1kg (a mouse, bearded dragon lizard, hamster) and £735 for a pet weighing more than 50 kilos (a great dane, an emu, a leopard).

Headstones range from granite round-topped (£55) to a those with white marble pillars plus gold leaf lettering, with some options costing more than £900.

Plaques with a photo can be added, too. Some people choose green burials, which cost less. The pet is wrapped in a covering rather than being put into a coffin and placed in a grave in a memorial shrub bed.

There are different cremation options. Ashes can be scattered across the burial grounds, or kept in a different kinds of personalised tins or natural oak boxes with an engraving – from £115 to £227 for an individual cremation. For a communal cremation, where the pet is lain alongside other pets in the chamber, prices start at £41.

Owners can attend the cremation, and if they want to, say a few words. If they can’t or don’t want to attend (cremating a large dog can take six hours, so it’s a big time commitment), they can have a photograph of their pet laid out on the trolley next to the cremation chamber.

There are extras on offer too, such as a keyring with a sample of the pet’s fur or ashes inside (from £59) and clay imprints of the pet’s paw.

For context, the average cost of a human funeral is £4,975 for a burial and £3,858 for a cremation, according to figures from the insurance group SunLife released this year.

(Article source: Inews)

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