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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
At first no one took his idea seriously. To be an animal undertaker?
Surely that must be a joke. "Everybody looked at me funny,"
"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
"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:
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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 (www.mycemetery.com)
actually went to auction on E-Bay with the starting price of $1
It had no takers, but its owner, www.Lavamind.com, 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
Road, Hamilton 08691. Debra A. Bjorling, executive director.
fax, 609-584-2520. Home page: www.hamiltonpet.com.
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.
Trenton 08611. Joseph Immordino, funeral director. 609-989-7474.
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.
Road, Hamilton 08691. Debra A. Bjorling, executive director.
fax, 609-584-2520. Home page: www.hamiltonpet.com.
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