Attending to Your Pet’s Body After Death
Exploring Cremation and Aquamation
The loss of a pet can be profoundly impactful, leaving us to make hard choices about their body. Explore our animal chaplain’s advice for what happens after our animal companions pass.
The last few weeks of Ringo Petricelli’s life were heartbreaking. Suffering from diabetes, his feline body would not regulate regardless of the insulin we tried. Soon, his eyes went dull, and walking looked painful for him.
Feeling guilty and unsure if it was time for euthanasia, I had a frank talk with Ringo. I apologized for not being able to “fix” him. Then, I explained the possibility of reincarnation, noting that while I was not 100 percent sure about the exact details, I thought there was a possibility he could get a new body.
Each subsequent morning, I inquired, “Ringo Petricelli, do you want a new body?” He would look down and walk off. Then one day, when I asked, he raised his head and stared into my eyes intensely. Something powerful happened at that moment. It felt like shared acceptance. A few hours later, his hind end gave out. I mindfully made a decision, and we were off to the vet.
After Ringo’s euthanasia, our veterinarian asked me what I would like to do with his body. I chose cremation, as I was living alone at the time and unable to dig a grave for a home burial.
Indeed, most pet bodies in the U.S. are treated this way. Most veterinarians have relationships with cremation companies and default to recommending the process.
The next choice I needed to make was whether to do a group cremation (his ashes intermingled with others) or an individual one. I opted for the higher-priced individual cremation, uneasy with the idea of Ringo ending up spread out in different locations. I’m not alone in this line of thinking. In one study, people cited cremation as a way to keep an animal in the family after death.
While it felt most reverent for me then, I soon learned the shadow side of this choice. Group cremation would have been better for the planet. Sustaining the heat needed for cremation requires a lot of fuel and releases carbon dioxide and toxins into the air. For example, an average-sized dog body is estimated to put out about 100 pounds of greenhouse gases!
A Brief Overview of Aquamation
For this reason, environmentally conscious people who still want to keep their pet’s cremains can turn to a process called alkaline hydrolysis―also referred to as aquamation, water cremation, resomation, or flameless cremation. (Your vet may not be familiar with this process, so you may need to Google “aquamation near me” to research your options.)
Rather than using fire, a hot alkaline solution does the bio-decompostion work. As a result, aquamation has about a tenth of the carbon footprint of conventional cremation and releases zero emissions. After processing, the fluid can be used for practical uses, such as fertilizing habitats. Or it may simply enter the local sewer system. And the powdered bone remains will be given to you to take home.
Creative Places to Keep Cremains
While vase-shaped urns used to be the most common landing place for cremains, now there is an astonishing array of designs, shapes, and other options.
Ringo is in a foot-tall Egyptian-styled urn with a cat’s head, reminiscent of the goddess Bastet. On the shelf next to him are other cats we’ve loved. Little Max’s cremains rest in a bright white Buddha figure. Mr. Kitty is in a glossy black cat-shaped urn.
But urns aren’t the only way to go. You can purchase jewelry that comes with a tiny funnel for inserting cremains into a pendant, keeping a reminder of your loved one ever present. Or buy a plushie toy animal with a zippered compartment to insert remains. Memory boxes include a frame for displaying a photo of your animal companion on the lid. Cremains can be pressed into a vinyl record or even mixed with tattoo ink. Some people use ashes to make cremation art—the genuinely talented ones creating a portrait of their beloved animal.
For those who prefer Spot or Daisy to become part of nature, cremains can become part of an ocean reef. Or you can scatter them in a meaningful location (laws vary by state but are notoriously difficult to enforce). Bio-urns can grow a tree (although a green burial could do so, too). Your dog’s remains can even be shot into space!
Sharing Cremains With Other Family Members
One day, my husband received some unexpected cremains via the United States Postal Service. Like many people, he “lost his dog” via a divorce. Upon the dog’s passing, his ex-wife portioned some of the ashes into a small wooden box and popped them into the mail, a stunning testament to the bonds that transcend changes in human marital status.
A quick tip if you decide to pursue this option: When shipping cremains, use the USPS’s Special Label 139 or their “Cremated Remains Kit.” (Many other shipping companies, such as UPS, DHL, and FedEx, will not knowingly accept or transport cremains.)
Taking Care of Ourselves, Too
Losing an animal is hard. After you’ve attended to their body, you must start healing your broken heart. Research shows that support is essential. So, gather some friends for a furry wake. Find people who get you and spend time talking about your loss with them. Google “pet loss support group near me.” Although it may not seem so at this moment, you will recover from pet loss.
Adapted from Sacred Sendoffs: An Animal Chaplain’s Advice For Surviving Animal Loss, Making Life Meaningful, & Healing The Planet by Sarah Bowen.
Have kids in your house? Read Missing Fido or Fluffy? Tips for Helping Kids Survive Pet Loss.