WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Jim LaMar’s border collie, KC, died in 2012, he had him cremated and kept the remains with him in his California home.
At the time, there were few other options around Bakersfield – there had been a pet cemetery years earlier, but it had fallen into disrepair.
But in his job as president of Greenlawn Funeral Homes, which runs two human cemeteries in the area, LaMar said he continues to meet other people who also want a local place to bury their pets.
So, he finally convinced his bosses to set aside an unused portion of one of the cemeteries he oversees for pets of all kinds – and last year KC was the first to be buried. Since then, five other families have buried their pets there and more have made inquiries.
“People have said to me, ‘I don’t want to bury my dog in the yard because one day it might be a parking lot or a mall. I want to know that I can go visit them with my children, ”LaMar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
More and more pet owners seem to be feeling the same – and mainstream cemeteries are taking note, as Americans’ affection for their animals is causing an explosion of pet cemeteries across the country.
“There is a huge industry in the human market to include pet cemeteries because people see their pets more as family,” said Donna Shugart-Bethune, Executive Director of the Association. International Pet Cemeteries and Crematoria (IAOPCC).
This worries Patricia E. Salkin, a land use expert at Touro College in Illinois, who fears local jurisdictions may be caught off guard in the face of growing demand.
Relatively few cities have specific regulations for pet cemeteries, she said.
“So what do you do with the growing interest of Americans who want to bury their pets or be buried with their pets?” Salkin asked.
“The message to local governments is to consider setting aside a permitted use for animals to be buried, with or without their owners,” she added.
While there is no official data or federal regulations regarding the burial of pets, Shugart-Bethune estimates that there are approximately 700 pet cemeteries in the United States today.
Much of the recent boom was prompted by a 2014 law change in New York state that overturned a long-standing ban on burying animals in the same area as humans, Shugart-Bethune said. , whose organization has members in 15 countries.
At least three other states have followed suit, she said.
“Since then, there has been a lot more interest in human cemeteries having a section cut out for pets – it has become an accepted and necessary practice,” she said.
Animal burials also allow cemeteries to tap into the billions of dollars pet owners spend on their animals each year, said Paul K. Williams, president of the historic Washington Congressional Cemetery, which also opened a pet section last year.
“I’m surprised this hasn’t happened before… it’s obvious. Every cemetery I have spoken to tries to find an area in their cemetery to accommodate pets, ”he said.
The U.S. pet ownership rate is among the highest in the world, according to a 2016 study by market research firm GfK, with half the population having at least one dog and nearly 40% living with one or more cats.
And those numbers continue to rise, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, which has seen the nation’s companion dog population increase by 10% in just six years, reaching nearly 77 million in 2018.
Across the United States, state governments regulate affairs and public health issues around cemeteries, while local governments regulate land use, including what types of cemeteries are allowed and where, Salkin explained.
IAOPCC’s Shugart-Bethune said most of the calls she received from local officials were requests for advice on how to handle pet burial sites that have been abandoned and need to be redeveloped.
Pet cemeteries, usually created by animal-loving families, have long been particularly vulnerable to land development, she said.
“If it’s not passed down through the generations, most people don’t come to buy or care for a pet cemetery,” Shugart-Bethune noted.
His office is developing model law to tackle this problem before it arises, including putting in place deed restrictions and a fund that can provide maintenance in perpetuity, as required by a human cemetery. .
‘WE NEED THIS’
Julianne Mangin, a former Librarian at the Library of Congress, said twin trends have historically triggered the growth of pet cemeteries.
She pointed to the shift in the perception of pets as working animals to family members and urbanization, making it harder for people to find open lands to bury their pets.
Over the past several years, Mangin, who is now retired, has explored and documented the Aspin Hill Memorial Park pet cemetery in a suburb of Maryland just north of Washington.
Aspin Hill, which was established in 1921 and is considered the second oldest pet cemetery in the country, has more than 53,000 buried pets, according to its website.
“I have found that the inscriptions (on the headstone) for pets are a little more effusive than those found on a human grave – they offer more information,” said Mangin, who grew up near the cemetery, in a telephone interview.
Some famous animals are buried at Aspin Hill, Mangin noted, including Napoleon, the weather-predictive Persian cat, and Rags, a Paris street dog who became a mascot for American soldiers during World War I and would warn them of incoming shells.
Aspin Hill, now owned by the Montgomery County Humane Society, an animal welfare group, has run out of space and is not selling new plots, according to the website.
But the gardens remain open to walkers, mourners and those who harbor old memories.
“People would come and decorate the graves, and I would take care of it after and they would come back for the animals that died 20 or 30 years ago,” Mangin said.
This continued need for connection, even decades later, has relieved LaMar’s customers in Bakersfield.
“People have been sincere” about the opening of the pet cemetery, he said.
“They said, ‘We needed this already – there was no place like this, and it bothered me.’
Report by Carey L. Biron @clbtea, edited by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please mention the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org