How to handle your pet's remains

Losing an animal is stressful, and having to decide what to do with his remains adds to the stress. That’s why it’s best to explore your options before your companion’s passing.

Unpleasant as it may seem, peace of mind comes from knowing exactly what will become of your pet’s remains, and making the choice that feels right for you.

Are backyard burials legal?

Backyard burial is a popular option because it is economical and lets you remain close to the animal once he’s passed on. You also have control over how he is buried and what he’s buried with (toys, blankets, etc.), and you know his final resting place is ensured because you own the land. A non-biodegradable or self-vaulting container will help safeguard the remains.

But are you legally allowed to bury your pet in your backyard? The answer depends on local and/or country ordinances. Typically, home burial is permitted in rural and/or suburban settings, but is prohibited in urban areas. The reasoning behind laws prohibiting home burial is based on a concern for public health. Many people don’t bury pets deep enough, which can be unsanitary, or the burial could attract wild animals, which can be dangerous. It’s best to check with a local animal control officer, veterinarian or pet grief counselor to learn what the options are in your area.

In Los Angeles, for example, it is illegal to bury an animal except in an established cemetery. Outside the city limits, however, people are permitted to bury animals as long as they’re at least three feet deep and do not constitute a public nuisance. In Michigan, meanwhile, animals can be buried on private land as long as it’s done within 24 hours in individual graves. Most states, provinces and cities prohibit burial on public land or someone else’s land, no matter how remote or uninhabited. Many areas also have laws protecting groundwater from possible contamination and therefore prohibit burial near wells or other water sources. The laws can be quite varied, so be sure to do your research.

The facts on pet cemeteries

If your local or county ordinance does not allow burial on private property, as is customary in many urban areas, your only option may be an established pet cemetery. There are at least 600 operating in the United States, and many in Canada as well. Most operate in conjunction with other pet-related businesses such as boarding kennels, grooming salons, training centers and veterinarian hospitals. Others operate on a full time basis, specifically dedicated to the burial or cremation of pets.

You can buy a plot before or after the death of your companion. The cemetery, or another private organization, such as your vet’s office, can arrange for transportation of his remains, funeral and memorial services, and help you select a casket and headstone. You generally pay for the burial plot, headstone and casket, plus a fee for the cemetery’s perpetual maintenance fund. Dog burials can cost upwards of $275 and cats around $175. Some cemeteries may provide a free gravesite or cremation service to certified Leader Dogs, Police/Military K-9 Service & Tracking Dogs, or other certified service dogs. You make a one-time payment to the cemetery’s care fund to provide for future maintenance.

Beware that many localities do not have legislation or ordinances regarding pet cemeteries. Therefore, it’s important to ask questions when selecting a cemetery.

1. Is the cemetery deeded?

While some regions require that deed restrictions be set up to protect the land as a pet cemetery, many do not. Ask to see a deed restriction preserving the space as a pet cemetery. This is your guarantee that the space will remain a pet cemetery in the event it is disturbed by land development or if it closes. The land should not be leased or rented, but owned by the cemetery operators or corporation.

2. Does the cemetery maintain a care fund?

Also known as a ‘perpetual care fund’ or a ‘maintenance fund’, this one-time payment (as in human cemeteries) will ensure money is always available for the upkeep of grounds and roads. Though not required by law in some areas, many pet cemeteries set aside funds for long term care of the grounds. Some states, eg. California, have regulations that require a pet cemetery set up a care or maintenance fund.

3. Does the cemetery offer individual or private cremation?

This is less expensive than burial, as caskets can be pricey (from $100 to $1,000 or more). Many pet cemeteries have their own crematoriums, although several animals may be cremated during the same cycle. Make sure you request a private cremation so you can be sure you are receiving your pet’s ashes and not those of other animals. Be aware that some crematoriums offer ‘individual cremations’ in which many pets are cremated simultaneously with each body separated by several feet so the ashes can be collected individually.

4. Does the cemetery offer communal burial?

In areas where land is expensive, this can be a sensible and economical alternative.

5. Can you one day be laid to rest alongside your pet?

Widower Terry Lee of Dover, Kent, was banned from burying his wife in their back garden for fear it might affect neighboring house prices. His wife, Ruth, wanted to be interred next to her deceased pets, but town hall chiefs said people would be put off buying other homes in the area. The same generally goes for burying pets in human cemeteries. Fortunately, there are a few cemeteries that have accommodated the desire of animal lovers to be next to their beloved pets. Bonheur Memorial Park in Elkridge, Maryland, is one of the only cemeteries in the world that will bury (cremated) people with their animals. The Peaceful Pastures Pet Cemetery at Woodruff Memorial Park in North Strabane, Pennsylvania, has also buried people alongside their animals. One woman recently had her cat buried with his head facing her future gravesite.

It is your responsibility to make plans for the disposition of your animal’s remains. You can ease the burden of making this tough decision by exploring your options ahead of time. Making arrangements in advance speaks to the special relationship you share with your animal, and will also make taking your friend to his final resting place a more peaceful and therapeutic experience.