What Can Pet Care Reveal About the Funeral Industry?

Thursday, May 31, 2018

This month, I found a couple stories about pets and memorialization, and I realized I haven't thought or written that much about it here. We attend a good amount of trade shows and conferences, and there are always pet memorialization suppliers and and panels about pet services. The piece that got me thinking initially was about the pet care industry which is valued at $69 billion dollars. That figure is up from $17 billion in 1998, a growth of nearly $2.5 billion dollars a year. That number covers the entire market - pets, food, supplies, veterinary services, medicine, grooming, and boarding - and is revealing about the place pets have in our society; the pet memorialization market is obviously going to be a piece of that. Can that tell us anything about memorialization overall? And do our attitudes about how we care for our dead pets reveal anything about the ways we engage with human death?

Popular Science spoke with psychologists about the shift in our emotional attachments to pets, the way the death of a pet impacts us, the social function of grieving, and how the lack of some established customs around pet death can intensify the feelings of loss. They mention that how we view pets has shifted:

The experts I talked to emphasized that our relationship to pet loss has changed over the last century. “It’s not surprising to me that we feel such grief over the loss of a pet, because in this country at least they are increasingly considered family members,” says Leslie Irvine, a sociologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Sixty-eight percent of Americans own a pet, an increase of twelve percent since surveys of pet ownership started in the 1988, when it was already booming. Losing a beloved animal friend is made harder by the relative novelty of the experience, often being a person’s first experience with a close death, and by it being one of the few times most people chose euthanasia to end a life. And depending on the relationship, the loss of a pet can be more traumatic than the grief we feel after the death of family and friends. In part, this is because pets share some of our most intimate relationships—we see them every day, they depend on us, we adjust our lives around their needs—and yet publicly grieving their loss is not socially acceptable.

We haven’t always felt this way, though. As a society, Irvine says, we’ve moved from thinking of pets as accessories or mindless pieces of furniture to thinking, feeling beings.

Domesticated pets, however, have been around for a long time, and a quick glance online reveals evidence of pet cemeteries - and the status conferred by those burials - throughout history. Just last year archeologists discovered one of the earliest known pet cemeteries with the intact remains of nearly 100 animals in Ancient Egypt. The deceased were mostly cats, as Egyptians were some of the first humans to domesticate the species. Romans, though less so, were also known to bury dogs which signified their status as close companions. While we can be reasonably certain that animal-human relationships were different 5,000 years ago, the "special relationship" still existed in some form.

As of last year there were around 700 pet cemeteries in the U.S., and like in death care industry overall, cremation (for pets) is a fast-growing market in North America. It seems logical that as pet owners are spending more on their pets overall, they might be more inclined to spend on their memorialization as well. The Popular Science article goes on to discuss the impact of a pet death being amplified by the type of physical closeness the process:

On a personal level, the death of a pet is often a person’s first exposure to the loss of a close relationship, says Thomas Wrobel, a psychologist at the University of Michigan-Flint. Human death has been relatively sanitized, he explains. We have an industry for funerals and cremations, and you don’t typically have to deal with a dead body yourself. “With pets it’s a lot more in your face,” says Wrobel. “Unless you do the cremation option, you’ve got this dead dog you have to deal with, which is a lot more intimate experience of the death.”

What sticks out about this piece throughout is the way the article and interviewees describe the experience of a pet death and the feelings of grief as on par with or even exceeding a human death, in part because grieving animals isn't socially accepted in the same way. Interestingly enough, they note the importance of rituals to grieving, and suggest that the lack of established rites for a pet could augment the feeling of loss, and the isolation along with it:

“With disenfranchised grief is there is less support, and the grief can be even worse than for a person because there are no rituals,” says [Wendy Packman, a psychologist at Palo Alto University], “and when people do go out and do a ritual, when they feel brave enough, they can be ostracized.”

As I was researching this story, friends told me about the lengths they went to in order to bury their pets properly, despite regulations about where and how you may dispose of animal remains. One snuck into their community garden at midnight to bury a pet rat under a rose bush. Another drove out in the middle of the night to bury their cat underneath a beautiful oak tree they pass on their daily commute. Even my gerbil burials, and the funeral I held for my cat were private affairs, in the backyard with my family—our secret, quiet grief shared together.

Packman believes this social acceptability of grieving for pets is changing, noting that she’s seen a rise in memorials for pets and pet cemeteries. But in the meantime, says [Cori Bussolari, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco], we grieve our pets so deeply because we feel like we’re not supposed to. “We worry a lot about making people uncomfortable, because then they don’t want to be around us—and if they don’t want to be around us then we’re by ourselves,” she says. “But the reality is that the more we talk about grief, the more we normalize grief.”

This idea of there being "no rituals" for pet deaths is interesting because I believe it can correlate to some of the shifting norms we are seeing for human deaths (for example, how mobility, technology, and secularization result in different needs from funeral services). Perhaps people aren't completely uninterested in funeral services, and in fact may actually underestimate how important it can be, in favor of getting the process over with as quickly as possible. Pet owners likely have multiple animals throughout their lives, so if anything, the loss of a pet presents a natural opening to discuss death and funeral services. Being prepared and equipped for the unexpected provides security, and takes a lot of uncertainty and pressure off of the family at a difficult time. I am not sure what the way forward is - for a cemetery or funeral home, it might not make sense to offer pet services - but getting people in the door for a face-to-face is one of the best ways to make a connection. The last point from Bussolari is an important one - grieving isn't easy by any stretch, and there is a certain amount of discomfort around any kind of death, so one of the main tasks at hand is to look for opportunities to help demystify and ultimately normalize the process.