BY PETER JAMISON
The wake for Coleen Ellis' terrier-schnauzer mix was well attended. Mico had been a small but strong-willed animal, displaying the noblest traits of a blended ancestry. Her terrier's air of authority was enhanced by the schnauzer's characteristic beard, white and wiry like that of a kung fu master.
Even in death, the dog seemed to command the attention of humans. Almost 40 people filed through Ellis' living room to gaze upon Mico, in an open casket with a blanket, squeaking snowman and gerbil toy. Memories were shared, along with some good belly laughs and honest tears. That night, the lifeless Mico stayed with Ellis and her husband in their bedroom.
Weird? According to Ellis, an Indiana resident who today is part owner of a pet funeral home chain with a franchise in Pinellas Park, there was only one strange fact about the pomp that attended her terrier-schnauzer's 2003 passing: "What was disturbing to me is that I was having to do it all myself."
No more. Anyone who thinks pet funerals are the province of wild-eyed empty-nesters and Doctor Dolittle-like eccentrics need only stroll into the nearest mortician's lobby to find that pet death care, as industry insiders call it, is booming.
Anderson-McQueen, one of Florida's largest family-owned chains of funeral parlors and crematories, handled more pets than humans last year, according to company president John McQueen. About 3,500 of the St. Petersburg firm's 5,700 funerals and cremations were for animals.
Ellis is a consultant for pet morticians in addition to maintaining an ownership stake in Pet Angel Memorial Center, the company she was inspired to start by the lack of services at the time of Mico's death. She said the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance, a trade association, estimates that close to 1.9 million pets were provided professional death services in 2012. Of those, the vast majority were cremated, with only about 21,000 buried, she said.
"It's a great business with pets," said Ernie Johnson, who attended a morticians convention — featuring multiple seminars specifically about pet funerals — in Tampa last month. "You don't have any strings attached. You don't have dysfunctional families fighting, or multigenerational families where people have been divorced and remarried." Johnson, a third-generation director of human funerals in Locust Grove, Va., said he has added two pet crematories to his operation.
Still, people remain more profitable to bury or cremate, and account for the bulk of revenue at many funeral parlors that cater to both humans and animals. At Anderson-McQueen, the price of basic pet cremations ranges from $99 for a creature weighing less than a pound to $249 for one that weighs more than 100 pounds. A simple human cremation costs $2,995.
Most people opt for a straightforward cremation of their animals. Through Anderson-McQueen's Pet Passages program, they are entitled to some time alone with their loved one in the Rainbow Bridge Room, a New Age-accented vigil chamber where large lit candles are arrayed around a dark doggie bed on a tiled bench.
Full-frill funeral services like the one Ellis had for her terrier cost extra, and are rare, McQueen said. They do happen. He recalls one particularly elaborate open-casket service in the company's chapel off Tyrone Boulevard in St. Petersburg. The deceased was a Scottish terrier, clad for the occasion in a plaid sweater. A bagpiper played a dirge.
The veneration of dead animals has ample precedent. Gripped by their centuries-long interest in mummification, ancient Egyptians performed death rites for all manner of animals. Some of them, including cats, crocodiles and ibises, received individual funerals from priests who considered them sacred.
The contemporary interest in pet funerals probably has ponderous explanations rooted in sociology and psychology — the increasing number of childless American homes, a growing acceptance of the idea of pet as family member. McQueen sees a less complicated reason for the trend: simple affection.
"It seems like the grief associated with the loss of a pet is much more pronounced for many people than the grief associated with the loss of a person," he said. When a pet dies, he said, its human counterpart loses a source of purely unconditional love.
"My wife's not always happy when I get home," McQueen said, "but my dog's always happy when I get home."
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.