Backyard Burials

The Rainbow Bridge

Corrections or additions?

This article was prepared for the February 7,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

For Man’s Best Friends, a Final Resting Place

The bereaved family is gathered at the graveside where

a handsome coffin rests. Tears are shed. The funeral director reads

a poem and lowers the coffin into the grave. Sadly, the family members

place flowers on the coffin and turn over the ceremonial handful of

earth. Then they walk back through the cemetery to the viewing room,

where they linger to talk about their memories of the deceased.

It would be like any graveside, any cemetery, any funeral parlor —

except that the coffin contains the family’s pet cat. Cats and dogs

are the primary occupants of a new/old pet cemetery, Hamilton Pet

Meadow, but its doors — and graves — are open to any animal.

Recently a ferret was buried there.

This graveyard, established on Klockner Road a century ago by the

Mercer County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, had

been abandoned for 20 years. The new owners are Debra A. Bjorling

and her partners — her mother, Josephine L. Parr, and her cousin,

Linda Makkay. They bought the cemetery and have opened a full-service

funeral home and memorial park for pets, complete with a viewing room

and even a crematory. Bjorling obtained a $135,000 Small Business

Administration loan for the mortgage and equipment, began accepting

pets for burial and cremation in January, and hopes to start making

a profit by the end of this year.

Among their promotional gambits is hosting Adopt a Pet

open houses, with the next one is scheduled for Saturday, February

24, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It is sponsored by two animal shelters,

Pet Rescue of Mercer and Focus on Animals. Call 609-586-9660 for


Bjorling quit a good day job to make this business happen. "It

is a bit of a struggle," she admits. "It was a sacrifice for

me, to not work. I was working very hard for other people, and I


I could be working that hard for myself," she says. She was doing

research on possible business ideas when one of the family cats died.

"We were burying Lucky in the back yard," says Bjorling,


we were having a service for him, and my husband Eric had the idea

that there could be a need for this."

Her husband, an engineering consultant, spent an entire year trying

to convince her that profits could be made from conducting last rites

for felines and canines. Much later, from her brother-in-law, she

found out why Eric was so committed to the idea. He grew up in rural

New York, so the story goes, and when animals got hit by a car, he

was the one to go out and scoop them up, and then he would give them

"proper" burials.

At first no one took his idea seriously. To be an animal undertaker?

Surely that must be a joke. "Everybody looked at me funny,"

says Bjorling.

"But in 1997, after a whole year of my husband bugging me, we

went to a convention of the International Association of Pet


in Memphis," she says. "Then I was kind of sold on the idea,

because a whole bunch of people were doing it and enjoying it. I


that it was a more serious thing than I imagined. This is a service

industry, and you are helping people through a really bad time of

grief. To have someone affirm these owners’ feelings — they are

very thankful for this. Their friends might say, `Go out and get


pet!’ Here, we understand."

"The people who come in here are so distraught," says Linda

Makkay. "It is so helpful to have closure and to talk with us

and to know their pets are here."

Animal burial has been going on for thousands of years. Archaeologists

believe the oldest known pet cemetery, in Green County, Illinois,

is more than 8,500 years old. In this ASPCA cemetery, one stone is

labeled 1896 and many graves date from the 1920s and 1930s.

Last year Bjorling opened her business, having bought the six-acre

site at an auction from the City of Trenton. A potential buyer at

the auction, an animal rescue shelter, helped bid the price up to


To pay for start-up costs Bjorling obtained the SBA loan using the

workbook and software CD devised by Mercer County Community College’s

Herb Spiegel. "I worked with Lisa Williams from Summit Bank and

followed Herb Spiegel’s workbook to a T, and it was a perfect business

plan. With the workbook for $11 you get a disk and it has spread


on it. I just filled out the sheets."

The loan paid for refurbishing the building, starting the business,

and buying the equipment (the stock of urns and coffins) and an


crematory. The cremation business, as it turns out, can be among the

most profitable segments of a burial business.

Bjorling has the only animal crematory available in Central Jersey

for general use. The Hopewell Veterinary Group has its own small


but it can be used only for the group’s own clients. Until now the

other veterinarians had to freeze the remains and wait for a weekly

pickup for crematories in Lafayette, New Jersey, or Trevose,


she says. The wait might be two weeks to send it away, whereas


hopes to be able to do a 24-hour turn-a-round.

She is marketing her service to get the local veterinary business.

Vets, after all, are called on both to do euthanasia of the animal

and consoling of the owner. Grief counseling is a standard course

at veterinary schools and conventions, and a half-dozen schools offer

grief counseling internships through Internet-based bereavement



Bjorling’s service can be useful to veterinarians in

several ways. Burying pets in the backyard is subject to several


and vets discourage letting dead animals leave the premises. But


owners consume lots of vet time. Euthanasia procedures are often


at the end of the day because, says one vet’s assistant, owners


take at least 30 minutes, often more, to say goodbye to their dog

or cat.

"Some people feel rushed in a treatment room," says Bjorling.

"In a place like ours, they can feel very comfortable."

The partners are also reaching out to previous clients of the


"We put up a banner at the site, asking people with pets buried

there to call us." More than 140 responded, and some are visiting

their pets 40 years later. Holding open houses for the animal


like the one on February 24, is another marketing tool.

"If somebody is willing to use the cemetery’s services, that is

a person who really cares about their pet as a family member,"

says Gloria Aceti of Focus on Animals, a West Windsor-based animal

shelter. "That ties in with what we are asking people to do —

to save a life or to foster an animal."

The cemetery is a family business. Bjorling and Makkay grew up


in Robbinsville. Bjorling’s mother, Josephine Parr, was a medical

assistant and her husband, a former iron worker, is the construction

superintendent in charge of such projects as the Towers in East


and the new schools in the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District.

Makkay had worked in her husband John’s sign-making and satellite

model-making businesses. A graduate of the College of New Jersey,

Class of 1977, Makkay was a certified teacher and had taught nursery

school. Her son is a junior at the College of New Jersey and her


goes to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan.

Bjorling, 43, went to Mercer County College and San Diego State and

had been a practice manager for a neurosurgeon, Ariel Abud, and a

practice administrator at Impact Physical Therapy. She and her


a medical engineering consultant, have two school-aged children.

Realtors Paula and Jack Beiger of Weidel Realtors in Hamilton arranged

for the property purchase, and Robert Avolio of Avolio & Hanlon at

Crossroads Corporate Center is the partnership’s attorney. Richard

Schroeder of Schroeder/Perez designed the rehabilitation of the 2,000

square-foot building, and a south Jersey firm owned by John Wyshinski

did the construction. Bjorling acted as her own general contractor.

Easy Graphics designed the logo.

"My 12-year-old son comments that he is very proud of me,"

says Bjorling, "that I had a dream, and that I made it come true,

and stuck with it through all the adversity. The hardest part for

me was going through the building and zoning process, and dealing

with the township requirements — the paving and the handles on

the doorknobs to make them agree with the ADA requirements. I learned

to be sure when you spend $100 on a doorknob, that you know what kind

of doorknob they want you to have."

Currently the young business is doing one burial a week. One of the

partners drives a van to pick up the remains from the home or the

veterinarian. If it is a cremation, they return the cremains to the

owner or the vet.

Sometimes grieving clients are referred to a grief counselor.


been told that for a certain percentage of people, the death of a

pet may trigger other losses, and they may need serious


says Bjorling. "For people grieving in a normal way, when they

come to us, they are talking to somebody who knows how they feel."

"They go to the viewing room and visit with their pet, cry, and

come out," says Makkay. "Then we sit and talk with them. Then

they have the burial. Sometimes they want to wait until their children

are available. We read some poems at the gravesite, and we present

them with a poem in a frame, personalized with their pet’s name. When

they are ready, we ask them if it is OK to lower the pet. We put the

pet inside the grave, and we leave them alone for a few minutes. Maybe

they put one scoop of dirt in. Then we go ahead and finish the dirt

after they leave."

To bury a small dog or cat at Hamilton Pet Meadow costs from $600

to $800, and to cremate the remains and keep them in a special urn

is $200 and up. The menu of costs:

Caskets: Basic coffins began at $110, complete with a

satin lining, pillow, cover. "They just go right on up; they get

very fancy," says Makkay. A more deluxe small coffin is

$275 and the most expensive is $700. All come from a specialty pet

coffin manufacturer. In comparison, caskets for human infants and

children start at $500 and are airtight.

Burial plots: $465 for a small dog or cat and $555 for

a large dog. Space is also available for horses. After the first two

years, plot owners pay $30 annually for maintenance or a one-time

fee of $500 for perpetual care, which will go into an escrow account.

If the owner is not able to pay the fee, the right to burial would

revert back to the cemetery — but Bjorling has no plans to do

that in the immediate future: "I won’t disturb any pets here now.

We have a World War II dog — a canine infantry member — as

well as lots of firehouse dogs from the local firehouses — and

I would never disturb them."

Cremation: To have an animal cremated in the Hamilton

Pet Meadow crematory costs $185 for up to 30 pounds, $210 for 31 to

60 pounds, and $245 for 61 pounds and over. The remains are returned

to you promptly in a flower-printed tin. If you have a


cremation, where you don’t get the remains back, that costs $45.

Funeral urns: Bjorling displays an entire wall of urns,

from $25 to $300. One made by Trenton’s own Boehm Porcelain costs

$195 and has a place where you can insert a picture of your pet.


urns cost up to $270 for a large dog and can be engraved. Urns also

come in wood, ceramic, and cloisonne.

Memorials: "If the owner does not have the body, we

will help them memorialize the pet in another way," she says.

"A living memorial could be a flowering tree with a plaque. A

memorial wall can have a metalized photos. An honor garden for animals

of service offers a free burial space."

Funeral director Joseph Immordino, who conducts viewings and

services for both people and pets, compares the cost of these final

arrangements. Immordino’s business, Precious Funerals for Pets,


from a Chambersburg funeral home (see sidebar) and offers home burials

for from $200 to $300, depending on the size of the grave. For a


to be buried in a "real" cemetery, he says, is not that much

more expensive than it is for an animal in a pet cemetery. Costs range

from $1,000 to $1,400. Cremation services for humans are about $200,

about the same as for pets, because the human crematory gets more

business and is therefore more efficient.

The number of pet owners who are willing to spend thousands of dollars

on medical care is growing — and these same people may also went

to spend money for a pet memorial. More than 600 pet cemeteries are

active in the United States, according to trade group statistics,

and 400 of these are profitable businesses. New Jersey, for instance,

has pet cemeteries in Vineland, Berlin, and Lafayette. Most operate

in conjunction with another business — a boarding kennel, a


hospital, a grooming salon, or even a human cemetery. The largest

is New York’s Bide-A-Wee Home Association, which has several animal

shelters in addition to the cemeteries — one with more than 5,000


Nevertheless, by these same statistics, only 200 pets, out of the

thousands of pets that die daily, are buried in pet cemeteries. The

real profits may be in cremation.

Bjorling hopes to capture the pet crematory trade in Central Jersey,

but among her competitors is Abbey Glen, a memorial park in Lafayette,

New Jersey, that currently has much of the business.

Backyard burial, other crematories, and a Trenton


parlor are not the only competition for Hamilton Pet Meadow. The


to fashion a cyberspace memorial for pets is the newest (and most

inexpensive) idea. AOL members, for instance, light candles for their

pets on Monday nights. Virtual cemeteries store thousands of pet


some maudlin, some matter of fact. An online magazine, Skirmisher,

reports that one of these cemetery home pages (

actually went to auction on E-Bay with the starting price of $1


It had no takers, but its owner,, apparently still

hopes to turn a profit.

Though open only since last year, Bjorling has an array of touching

stories. A Jewish cantor conducted his own funeral service for the

family pet for the benefit of his five-year-old daughter. Dog trainer

Linda Hobson, one of the more dedicated animal lovers, brought her

other dogs as moral support when she returned for the ashes of her

beloved Doberman, the first Registered Therapy Dog to cheer patients

at Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center in New Brunswick. Hobson always

chooses cremation, so that she can be buried with her deceased pets:


I go, we are all going together," she says. "I have dog and

cat remains — five of my own, and several that I am keeping for

my friends — lined up on my nightstand."

Then there was the man that walked in, unannounced, with his miniature

poodle, to have her cremated. "He was carrying her in his arms,

sobbing and crying," says Bjorling. "The vet had told him

to bring it over here to us. Shortly after that, his wife came. Some

friends came. His mother and father, his wife’s mother and father.

They were all gathering about this little dog — it was very


"All we did was be there for them and understand how they


says Bjorling. "They thanked us so much — just for having

a place where they could gather, remember their pet, and honor their

pet, and know it was OK how they felt about her. They had had the

dog longer than they had had their children. It was their baby. If

we had not been there, they wouldn’t have had that experience."

— Barbara Figge Fox

Hamilton Pet Meadow Memorial Park, 1500 Klockner

Road, Hamilton 08691. Debra A. Bjorling, executive director.


fax, 609-584-2520. Home page:

Top Of Page
Backyard Burials

Joseph Immordino is a licensed funeral director in the

Wilson-Apple Funeral Home in the Chambersburg area, but he also has

his own business, Precious Funerals for Pets (609-989-7474). An


of Mercer County College’s funeral service program, Immordino will

bury a pet and conduct the funeral ceremony in your own backyard for

$200 to $300, no casket required.

That price includes a traditional viewing at his funeral home, a


slate marker, and a death notice (a paid advertisement) in the local

paper. He can also take care of cremation and burial through the


of Hamilton Pet Meadow.

Contrary to what most people believe, says Immordino, any home owner

but those in Trenton can start a pet graveyard. You just have to


certain protocols about the depth of the grave and be careful not

to hit water or utility lines. "We find a safe place to bury on

their own property," he says. "We don’t require a casket —

they are a little expensive."

Immordino has five years experience with human burials. "I wanted

to have a little something on my own and I have pets myself,"

he says. "I do offer a very nice service, very dignified, very

professional." In the six months he has had this side business,

he has done nearly 50 funerals.

"Depending on the religious background we try to follow the same

protocol as the religion — with a few poems and some prayers.

If the families don’t wish to come into Trenton for a viewing, we

would rent their local funeral home for about $150."

For home burials, instead of a casket, he prefers a less expensive

alternative, a dog bed from a pet store, "nice and comfortable

and a normal environment." For cremations he can commission a

$250 handmade wooden urn with a figure painted to exactly match the

pet and a custom inscription. "When the families see it, they

buy one," he says.

Precious Funerals for Pets, 246 Morris Avenue,

Trenton 08611. Joseph Immordino, funeral director. 609-989-7474.

Top Of Page
The Rainbow Bridge

The "Rainbow Bridge," author unknown, is the standard


reading for a pet burial. One version is for horses; this one is for

cats and dogs:

Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge. When

an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that

pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all our

special friends so they can run and play together. All the animals

who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor, just as

we remembered them in our dreams of days and times gone by.

The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing,

they each miss someone special to them, who had to be left behind.

They all run and play together, but the day comes when one


stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; his

eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying

over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.

You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend


meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again.

The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the

beloved head, and you look once more into the trusted eyes of your

pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross the Rainbow Bridge together.

Hamilton Pet Meadow Memorial Park, 1500 Klockner

Road, Hamilton 08691. Debra A. Bjorling, executive director.


fax, 609-584-2520. Home page:

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