After the loss of a pet, owners must make some tough decisions: Burial or cremation?…
Ashes to Ashes
I say goodbye to pets every day at work, but nothing prepared me to say goodbye to my own dog when the time came.
Every time someone I love dies, I put them on my dresser.
It’s a wooden dresser, pale yellow, and nothing special. I found it on Craigslist for fifty bucks, and even though its drawers stick and its paint is peeling, it has traveled to three different houses with me, gaining important passengers over time.
My mom’s ashes are in a blue urn in the corner, next to her framed photo. The picture was taken years before her dementia took over, before her eyes drooped and wavered, along with her grip on reality. I like remembering this photo version of her, relaxed and smiling. It helps to have her face there so I am reminded of what the urn holds inside.
My dog Lady, who died more recently, is in a cedar box in the middle, also with a framed photo. Lady’s picture was taken by a professional pet photographer, her silly, alert expression inspired by a squeaky toy off-camera. Like mom, she is also smiling in the photo. I don’t know how dogs smile, but they do. And in this way, mom and Lady have become inadvertent afterlife buddies, grinning next to their powdered remains.
It’s an odd tableau, this dresser of faces, ashes and loss. And the truth is, I don’t know what to do with them.
I’ve counseled hundreds of pet parents over the years about the option of getting ashes. It’s a personal decision, I say. It costs extra. Many pet parents don’t have an aftercare plan in place, winging the decision of what to do with their pet’s remains at the most inopportune time: in the middle of a euthanasia, or after an accident, or a sudden event, when their instinct is to say yes to everything. Yes to ashes. Yes to paw prints. Yes to fur clippings. Yes, yes, yes. Because of course they want to hold onto every little bit of their pet that they can.
Many pay the additional fee to have their pet individually cremated, boxed up and shipped to their home or returned to the hospital for pick up. To say no to ashes seems like saying no to the love of your pet. Which is not true logically, but feels true emotionally.
Some pet parents say no to ashes because they can’t afford the additional cost, or don’t find meaning in keeping them. Some bury their pets in their backyards despite city ordinances, and some plan to bury their pets’ bodies but never come back to get them.
The immediate aftermath of death is not a good environment for such decisions.
The retrieval of ashes is just as polarized. Some pet parents want them back as soon as possible, calling for updates and picking them up promptly. Other boxes sit on our shelf for months, unclaimed. Our messages go unreturned. Our emails unanswered. It’s easy to judge the pet parents who never come back. How could they forget so easily? Nobody should be judged for how they react to death.
But as I sleep next to my own collection of ashes, the yellow dresser looming at the foot of my bed, my indecision confronts me nightly. I’ve ended up with my mom and dog on a dresser, and my sadness for both paralyzes me.
I am surprised that I, of all people, am having trouble processing my grief.
I see a lot of death at my job, working in a veterinary emergency room. When you see so much death, it makes you think you have a handle on it, simply because you’ve learned to endure it. The truth is that I’ve just gotten good at steeling myself against it, and putting up that clinical wall that allows me to be there for people who need me to function for them during some of the worst moments of their lives.
I used that wall when Lady needed to be rushed to the hospital, after a suspected brain tumor sent her into a state of vertigo that made her so miserable that we had to eventually euthanize her.
It was only after her death, once I had gotten home and spent two numb hours washing her blankets and packing up her unused medication to donate, placing them all neatly into the trunk of my car, vacuuming her hair and mopping up her spills, that I realized I was just like everyone else: nothing was going to protect me from this pain. I was not too cool for school. My experiences with other people’s pets dying meant nothing when my own pet died.
I had become so overwhelmed by others’ grief at my job that I allowed myself to think I was being “professional” with my ability to disassociate, to just say “I’m sorry for your loss,” like it was a mantra that would protect me from feeling that pain myself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people – grown adults who drove themselves to the hospital – slide down walls and wail like children when they understood, truly understood, that their dog or cat was really gone.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
Many times I have this thought: I’ll never see my mother again.
Lying on the couch, my hand will dangle to the floor and I think: where’s Lady?
The truth is that it’s not that I’m sorry for our client’s loss, or I’m sorry for my loss. The truth is that I’m sorry that we keep losing them, over and over, as our brains try to reconcile how something so real can vanish into thin air. And there is nothing we can do about it but keep going on without them.
On the left of my yellow dresser is a photo of me and my husband on our wedding day. We’d just said “I do,” and someone had snapped a photo at just the right time, post-kiss. My hand is clenched at my hip, like I’m trying to squeeze the moment for all it’s worth. We’re delirious with our own hubris. We found each other and got married! We might be the first to know such happiness. We’re beautiful and clueless.
The photo’s placement on the dresser of despair mocks me, and dares me to make sense of it all.
I lie in bed, closing my eyes to the dresser. I want to go to sleep, but my mind works to connect the dots from that bride and groom, who continue to live and love one another but are no longer the same people from the photo, to the dog, who lived a much shorter life but is missed as ferociously as the mom, whose last years were marred with dementia and pandemic loneliness.
My mom wanted her ashes to be thrown into the ocean. It’s been two years since her death and the thought of dumping her into the sea makes me feel like I’m losing her all over again.
Better to keep her on the dresser.
Lady’s collar stays on the dresser too. It was a splurge, a fancy leather one with green stones and gold rivets. The company that made it will turn it into a bracelet for you, free of charge, when your pet dies. Now it’s the size of my wrist, dangling around the neck of a ceramic bird. It’s been reduced for practicality and convenience, like the ashes. I wear it often, rubbing it with my thumb when I need comfort.
My husband has grown used to my mom and Lady in our bedroom. I’ve caught him a few times, on his way to the bathroom, saying out loud, “Hi Lady. Hi Erla.”
This is why I keep them on the dresser, I realize. Because I need them there. I need a place to rest my eyes when I am sad, and see them, and remember them. And if I hadn’t been the kind of person who wanted ashes, maybe I’d choose another way to remember Lady. Like by talking about her with my friends, or having a special piece of jewelry made, or taking our special hike and thinking about her.
“I put everyone I love on top of that dresser,” I tell my husband, again and again. It’s become a joke. But the more I say it, the more I’m not sure it’s actually a joke.
My husband has taken me at my word. While changing his shirt one morning, he playfully lays lengthwise along the top of the dresser. His long torso blocks our wedding photo, and his head touches mom’s blue urn. Poor Lady is buried somewhere beneath his armpit.
“I’m next,” he says.
“If you’re lucky,” I say back.
Vickie Jean DeHamer is the Client Care Hospital Service Manager at PESCM. She helps pet parents by day and writes by night.
Our End of Life Arrangements page has additional information about aftercare.