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10 Questions

Ten Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Pet Cremator

"What's the strangest animal you've cremated?"

by VICE Colombia; photos by Sebastián Comba ; translated by Julie Schwietert Collazo
13 April 2018, 10:43am

Photo by Sebastián Comba/VICE Colombia


This article originally appeared on VICE Colombia.

Pets today have it made. Spas, salons, day cares, marijuana, organic food, psychologists, and even brand-name clothing: These are just a few of the privileges that can be enjoyed by dogs, cats, and other animals whose owners have money.

There’s even the tendency to celebrate their birthdays, Christmas, and special days as if they're people. When someone decides to have a pet, it can become more than just an animal to them—another member of the family. And that’s understandable: An animal is a fantastic companion, one that’s sometimes indispensable to having a happy life.

People love their pets. Which makes the inevitable death of that furry someone very difficult. Perhaps it’s because of that trying moment that some people feel the need to cremate or bury their pets, to honor their lives and to say goodbye to them in a loving, respectful way. With that in mind, we talked with Henry Cortes, a veterinarian and the creator of Funeravet, Colombia's first funeral home for pets. The facility includes a crematory and offers psychological support services for those who are grieving. The company, just like funeral homes for people, helps and manages the process and reclamation of ashes, as well as their burial.

VICE: What’s the process of cremating an animal like?
Henry Cortes: With respect to cremation, the body of the pet is put in the oven at a temperature of 800°C (1,472°F), and, depending upon the size of the animal, can take between 20 minutes to two hours. The machine is automatic, and when the cremation is complete, we remove the ashes, allow them to cool, and then we mill them so they can be packaged in a plastic bag that is then placed inside a wooden urn and is delivered to the mourner.

The crematory at Funeravet. Photo courtesy of Funeravet

In addition to cremation, what other services does Funeravet offer?
With respect to the burial, at our cemetery that’s located in La Calera—about 45 minutes from Bogotá—we perform a small farewell ceremony, reading a poem that’s called “The Rainbow Bridge.” Right now, we have around 3,000 [burial plots]. In addition, we offer our clients the services of a psychologist, who comes to our office in Bogotá every 15 days.

Funeravet's cemetery in La Calera, Colombia. Photo courtesy of Funeravet

Why do you think people resort to these services?
In the past few years, animal companions have been increasingly viewed as important company for people. The human-animal bond is [built on] a deep love, and, for many people who lose their pets, they view that loss as something irreparable.

The pain of losing a pet can be as deep as the loss of a human being. Many clients choose to cremate their animals as a form of thanks for having been a companion over the years. Others do it because the law demands it, and still others because they believe that the environmental and sanitary impact is less.

This is the therapy room where psychologists provide support to people who are grieving. Photo by Sebastián Comba/VICE Colombia

Do you have pets? If so, what's it like to do this work as someone who’s a pet owner?
Right now, I have a cat, which my kids asked for. I had two dogs and in my mother’s house—we always had pets. As is the case with human funeral homes, where people who have families work, as a veterinarian I’m prepared to protect life. And I’m also prepared, when a pet’s life ends, to say farewell in a meaningful, loving way.

A plastic trinket that belongs to Henry. Photo by Sebastián Comba/VICE Colombia

How much does cremating a pet affect you emotionally?
I’ve been doing this for more than 17 years, and we’ve cremated more than 65,000 pets and buried nearly 3,000, so this is a job like any other in the sense that it has its good days and bad days. I’m a bit affected when kids come to say goodbye to their beloved pet, or when an older person says goodbye to their loyal companion.

Henry Cortés in his office at Funeravet. Photo by Sebastián Comba/VICE Colombia

What’s the strangest animal someone’s brought to you?
When the circuses could have animals, we cremated a tigress and a giraffe. Some clients have ducks, chickens, parrots, tortoises, and all kinds of rodents.

What are your clients like?
We have clients from every socioeconomic class, but above all, they're people who adore their animal companions; many of them consider their pets like their children or another member of the family. Many are animal lovers who might not know much about what pet ownership means, nor animal abuse, but they are people who love their furry friends. We have clients who are environmentalists who love their pets, but what they’re really concerned about is not throwing the body away, instead, using a respectful, serious service that is concerned about the environment. Other clients are people who have a very large pet that they can’t dispose of easily and they resort to us.

What are the craziest things your clients have requested?
Some clients have asked to save a part of the animal so that later it can be cloned; others have asked that when they themselves die, that their ashes be mixed with those of their pet, and that their family members sprinkle the ashes in the ocean.

There are also companies—in Brazil and Spain, and with representation in Colombia—that offer to make diamonds out of the ashes of pets. There are also those who have asked if we can embalm or mummify the animal—[which is] a taxidermy job.

What’s the most difficult or strangest cremation that you’ve done?
We’ve had clients who are quite difficult, who don’t want to let go of their pet. They won’t let go of the pet, and they want to stay with the body much longer. They’re usually single people or people who have had some personal problems.

With respect to the strangest… I’ve seen people who cut their pet’s head off to keep it like a trophy. There are also people who hold a wake all night long and request a priest or minister to perform a mass.

These are the refrigerators where the bodies of the animals are kept. Photo by Sebastián Comba/VICE Colombia

Is there a limit between what you’ll do and what you won’t do?
We’re clear about something: We don’t want to humanize pets even more. Some requests are normal, and to the extent that they don’t hurt anyone nor damage one’s own integrity, we have no problem. We try to help people understand that life goes on and that they should seek help from their families or friends. If we see someone who is in great pain, and they aren’t likely to overcome it easily, we refer them to a psychologist.