This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
By the time she was 35, Helen Hobbs had lost her father, mother and two close grandparents. While making arrangements for her father, she saw a female funeral director for the first time. It was at that point she decided to pursue a career in helping others through their grief.
After ten years of working as a funeral director for humans, she decided to open Pets at Peace: Pet Loss & Memorial Services. As a pet funeral director, she oversees a simple service to honour your pet's life – typically consisting of friends and family sharing funny stories and special memories. "It gives a nice – I don't like the word 'closure', but it helps people acknowledge their pet's life and their meaning to them," says Hobbs.
She provides much of what you'd expect from a regular funeral director, helping with the bathing, grooming and positioning of the pet so that final goodbye looks as natural as possible. From there, the deceased pet, often wrapped in a blanket or a piece of the owner's clothing, is placed in a body bag for cremation. Because there are no pet cemeteries in Toronto (and a bylaw states you can't bury your pet in the backyard) Hobbs only performs cremations – though it's also illegal to cremate pets and humans in the same crematorium.
We talked to Hobbs to find out what kind of pets are getting such an elaborate send-off and what it's like dealing with this particular kind of grief.
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VICE: What made you decide to become a pet funeral director?
Helen Hobbs: A friend of mine had taken her cat to the vet to have her put down. She wanted her ashes back. She waited a couple of weeks and phoned, wondering where the ashes were. They said "we don't have them yet." This went on for six weeks, her calling every week. Finally after the sixth week, she called them saying that this was ridiculous. An hour later they called back saying, "Oh, they are here." It just added to her grief. To this day, she wonders whether those are her cat's ashes. Having been in this profession and understanding the cremation process, I knew that it should not have taken this long at all. It really is a matter of days. I thought there must be a better way.
How are pet funerals different from funerals for people?
For pets, most people who come in are just looking for dignified and respectful cremations for their pets. Not many people choose to have an actual service. The family just wishes to have their pet's ashes back home with them. With humans, you're making arrangements for parents who have had a lovely long life, so the family is more or less accepting that this is going to happen and have adjusted to it. With a pet, even if they have lived their full life for their breed, let's say 15 or 16 years, it's just never long enough. It seems like only yesterday they were a puppy or a kitten. So even though it might be expected because of their age, it still seems shocking.
It's almost like making funeral arrangements for a child, every single time. That's the only thing I can equate it to. I think the reason we are so attached to pets is because they do remain childlike to us their entire lives. We're so close to them because they're with us, probably more so than our spouse or children because they're constantly at home.
What types of pets have you cremated?
We've served families who had budgies, parrots, rats, guinea pigs, hamsters, chinchillas. We've had a couple of snakes. We had a squirrel—this young couple had found one as a baby on their lawn and they brought him inside and raised him. It's amazing what people consider their pet and love as their pet, it's really heartwarming. The oldest pet I've cremated was a 22-year-old cat. About three weeks ago, [this man's] golden retriever had just given birth and there was one stillborn. He brought him in.
Does it ever get to you? Seeing dead pets every day?
It does for sure, I have a dog and three cats. People, unfortunately, have to bear a lot. The grief over a pet certainly seems deeper and stronger. I've had people tell me, "I'm grieving my cat almost more than I grieved the loss of my mother." I also think one of the equations of grief is people who have lost pets—as in, they can't find them. There are certainly good and bad ones out there, but I do know of animal communicators. I actually talked to one a couple of weeks ago. A couple of families have come to her seeking their lost pets, and she has been able to locate two of them. On the other side, as they're leaving, many times people will say to their pet "wait for me" or "I'll see you soon." Eventually they'll pull out their phone and show you pictures—here he was, and this was just last week. So that's very sweet. That's where the joyful part comes from.
What's the biggest misconception people have about your job?
I think there's more misconceptions on the human funeral side. I think that people think that funeral directors, all they do is just stand around at the visitation, or open doors for you. I don't think they realize how much we really do, and I think that people are quite surprised that as a funeral director, you also embalm bodies.
What do you want people to know about pet funerals?
We wouldn't diminish their grief, and that it's OK to really grieve your pet, and not be embarrassed by it. I want people to know that it's important and to seek people who will support them through their grief journey. There's still a bit of what's called "disenfranchised grief," meaning it doesn't get the same support as losing, say, a brother or sister. People say, "Oh well, it's a dog, and you can get another one." People who flippantly say things like that are generally not pet lovers, and they don't understand that bond.