Skip to content

Pet owners dish out big dollars for funerals

Pets1.jpg

A headstone at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery outside of New York City. The cemetery is the oldest of its kind the the United States. (Peter Cox/CNS)

Pets2.jpg

A recent addition to the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery outside of New York City. Pet owners are spending more money in memorializing their cats or dogs. (Peter Cox/CNS)

Pets3.jpg

A gravesite at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Scarsdale, NY, the oldest pet cemetery in the nation. Pet owners shell out hundreds to thousands of dollars to have their pets buried and memorialized there. (Peter Cox/CNS)

Pets4.jpg

A gravestone at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in New York. Many pet owners willing to spend thousands to memorialize their animals. (Peter Cox/CNS)

Loretta and Dan Goldstein are preparing for the loss of their loved ones. They just put down $1,400 for a burial plot. And that doesn't even cover the cost of the casket, the burial, the headstone or the yearly upkeep.

“All told, we’ll probably end up paying between $2,000 and $3,000,” Dan Goldstein said.

But this isn’t a burial plot for a family member. The Yonkers, N.Y., couple are buying a grave site at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery for their still-living dogs: Goldilocks, Prince Charming and Lola--a Yorkie and two Shih Tzu, respectively.

“We love them,” Loretta Goldstein said. “They are like our children.”

The Goldsteins aren’t alone. More and more pet owners are leaving behind the backyard burial for more expensive pet memorials.

It’s no secret that pets are important to Americans. The White House has a Web site dedicated to the presidential pooch, Barney, and the recent recall of tainted pet food spurred a furor among pet owners nationwide.

The amount of money people spend on their pets has nearly doubled during the last 10 years, from an estimated $21 billion in 1996 to $38.5 billion in 2006, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association. As the cost of owning a pet has grown, so has the cost of dealing with a pet's death.

In the United States, where an estimated 63 percent of households have a pet of some sort, Americans are shelling out big money to memorialize their animals.

A study by Dr. Sandra Barker, professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University, found no difference between the emotional attachments people have with their pets and with their closest family members. In fact, she said, the study found that one-third of people surveyed considered themselves closer to their pets than to their closest family member.

"It might have to do with the way that families have become more separated," Barker said. "It may be that pets are providing that form of social support that years ago we’d get from that family member living close by."

Jamie Minea, who owns and runs Forever Pets, a pet memorial business in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., has watched the business of pet death expand.

“The trend is changing in the right direction,” he said. When he got into the business 10 years ago, Minea's pet urn company was one of only a handful on the Internet. “Today there are hundreds,” he said.

Minea says that in 1997 his local pet crematory was doing 25,000 pet cremations a year. Today it is doing 60,000 annually, he says.

While pet cemeteries have been around for more than a century, the amount of money people are spending has increased dramatically. Some in the business are still surprised by how much people are willing to spend.

Louis Clarke, owner of Pet Haven, a pet cemetery in Pennsylvania, remembers one customer who spared no expense for his beloved dog. The man flew his two daughters in from Los Angeles and Florida, invited about 25 funeral guests and hired a priest. The dog was buried in an oak casket and a reception was held afterward at an upscale Manhattan restaurant. The cost: $25,000.

Clarke, a former accountant and vice president with Citigroup, decided to give up the financial world in 1997. He wanted a change of pace. But while he left behind the world of finance, he says his new job wasn’t any less lucrative.

But, Clarke says, the important difference is that personalization and empathy are essential to success in the pet cemetery business.

“You have to meet the needs of each specific case,” he said. Being careful with how you talk about the pet is very important, he says, as many people feel their pet was a member of the family.

“You’ll hear some people calling someone’s dead dog an ‘it,’ and you just cringe,” he said, putting his hands over his face. “People don’t always realize the bond between a human and a pet is so strong.”

Barker says that people are no longer hiding the strong bond they have with their pets. Celebrities and politicians are constantly seen with their pets, she says. But ordinary pet owners, too, have also become more open about this relationship.

“I’ve had some professional clients who, because their supervisors or bosses were not sensitive to their grief in losing a pet, quit their jobs,” she said.

Minea says that this sentiment has helped people to be more open about this bond, and, in turn, has made businesses like his more popular. Even the skeptics now understand, he says.

“These pets are virtually humans,” Minea said. “A lot of people out there hate to admit it, but it’s no longer crazy, it’s real. It’s absolutely real.”

E-mail: pnc2103@columbia.edu