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Till death do us part: Co-burial of humans with their companion animals

“The human brain does not process grief over the loss of a beloved pet any differently than grief over the loss of a family member or close friend,” says Robert Fells, Executive Director of the ICCFA.
“The human brain does not process grief over the loss of a beloved pet any differently than grief over the loss of a family member or close friend,” says Robert Fells, Executive Director of the ICCFA.
Jeannette Louise Smith

“When I pass from the earth, I want my death to connect to life with a simple, natural, green burial. Give my body to the earth that has sustained me - no embalming fluid, no casket - and recycle me peacefully into the soil like wildlife along with my soulmate and our companion animals.” - Jeannette Louise Smith

Even in death there can be controversy. The ceremonial, memorialization, and burial wishes of the deceased may cause conflict between surviving family, loved ones, and friends. The living may also disagree amongst themselves about how their loved one should be honored. Lack of awareness for cultural and religious traditions, rituals, and beliefs can also impede understanding and respect.

Aside from acts of genocide and warring foes in which human remains were disrespected and treated with complete disdain, Robert Fells, General Counsel at International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA) for 31 years and Executive Director for the past three years says, “Funeral services and memorialization of our dead have been important components of all societies for thousands of years.”

“Somehow, the understanding that funerals are for the living was misplaced and instead direct disposition came about,” Fells remarks on interment and cremation without any formal services, visitation, or observance, “usually at the wish of the decedent without any regard for the survivors. Thus, the time-honored process of sharing grief and working through it was discarded.”

“The emergence of pet funerals recognizes that grief must be channeled,” Fells says. “The human brain does not process grief over the loss of a beloved pet any differently than grief over the loss of a family member or close friend.”

Regarding the public's attitude about interring humans with their companion animals, Fells perceives, “There seems to be an increasing number of people who are interested in some sort of service and memorialization when their pet dies. This is truly a grassroots movement by consumers and neither anticipated by nor marketed by the death care industry.”

Fells believes there is a small percentage of consumers who want to be buried with their companion animals. “Whether this number will increase or whether consumers who say they want co-burial will actually follow through remains to be seen.”

Among the many different types of cemeteries (church, religious, government, military, family, private, pet, and green), most cemeteries are non-profit and a much smaller percentage of cemeteries are for profit businesses.

“Whatever the model,” Fells explains, “cemeteries are typically dedicated and legally restricted to interring human remains. Burial rights have been sold historically only for human burials.”

“The issue of someone wanting to use a burial right they have purchased for a pet burial would likely violate the cemetery’s charter and bylaws, rules and regulations, and the contract of sale itself.”

“The cemetery has a responsibility to observe the conditions and limitations of the burial rights sold,” Fells states referring specifically to human remains. There is no established legal right for the co-burial of humans and their companion animals.

“Co-burial in a section dedicated to human remains is not an option for cemeteries.”

“Respecting the wishes of people who wish to be buried with their pets has a viable path,” Fells elaborates. “The obvious solution is for the cemetery to dedicate a new section for pet burials, as is being done quite often now, and also to dedicate a new section for co-burials if state and local laws do not prohibit it, or better yet, authorize it.”

The International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association is cooperating with various state cemetery associations to obtain whatever governmental consent may be needed to ascertain whether a cemetery may lawfully dedicate sections for co-burials.

“Perhaps,” Fells says, “the future of the funeral industry will see a renewed appreciation for the role of services and memorialization in the grieving process.”

For more information, visit the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA) website and follow International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association on Facebook. Also visit the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance on the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association website.