Theology has struggled for centuries to unravel the mystery of where people go after they die. Some believe the good go to heaven, the flawed to purgatory, and the fatally flawed to hell. Supposedly, legions of unbaptized babies float in limbo.
But where do pets go when they can whine and scratch no more?
Thankfully, we now have an answer. Increasingly, if they have a loving master, or perhaps one crazier than a laboratory rat, they end up at Heavenly Acres Pet Cemetery, halfway between Brighton and Howell, where animals from guinea pigs to Great Danes lie in hard-shelled little caskets, beneath elaborate and expensive tombstones.
“I’ve buried canaries. I’ve cremated turtles,” says 51-year-old Bill Schreiber, the owner, who maintains the 10-acre cemetery with his fiancee, Tammy Mead. He’s buried horses with a backhoe and presided over commitment ceremonies for hamsters.
“Haven’t done a goldfish yet, though,” he muses.
It’s always nice to have something to look forward to. There are thousands and thousands of dead animals a few feet under the sod, in a setting where the slogan is, “Lay Them to Rest Under the Whispering Pines of Heavenly Acres.”
Most of the business, though, is in bulk. Heavenly Acres, aka Bill, contracts with something like 145 veterinarians from Toledo to Port Huron to pick up dead animals and bring them here for disposal in one of the two huge crematoria he installed a decade ago.
Every day, dozens of animals go up in smoke, after a four-hour process that reduces each one to a few ounces of ash and powdered bone. Later, Schreiber and his four employees spread the remains in the cemetery, or deliver them to a nearby landfill.
The veterinarians pay a fee for each animal Bill takes away. But for a steadily growing number of pet owners, that’s not the end of the story. They want the ashes back. So they get them, sealed in a cloth-wrapped pouch or a cherrywood box.
Naturally, for a little extra, they can have them in a cultured marble, brass or pewter urn (“white laser etched with rose or willow tree design”). But there are those who can’t bear the thought of consigning Fido to the flames.
Hence the cemetery, which, like many human boneyards, is divided into various neatly landscaped sections, with names like the Garden of the Moon. If you really want to ease your suffering, or appease Miss Kitty’s spirit, there is The Pines, where the owners of dead pets can, and do, construct elaborate memorials.
Take one Southfield man, who erected a $2,500 tombstone for his dead rottweiler, bought a matching space for a still-living one, and enclosed it all with a wrought-iron fence. That, however, is not the oddest part.
“He comes and visits a lot, but he has the same thing — the tombstone and all the monuments — in his back yard too,” Schreiber said. That makes perfect sense; on days when the man can’t find the time to drive the 35 miles to visit his dead dog, he can still commune with Old Sparky’s spirit. (The name has been changed to protect everybody.)
Many tombstones have a few lines of poetry. Bad poetry.
You might say, doggerel:
If I could build a stairway to heaven
and if memory was a lane
I’d walk right up to heaven
and bring you home again.
Once in a great while, someone does bring beloved companions home again. Heavenly Acres sells Fiberglas caskets to bury Rover in, standard ($90), regular ($150) and deluxe ($250), depending on size and how much satin is involved.
Fiberglas does not disintegrate, and once in a while, when someone moves away, they come to collect the dearly departed’s remains to take with them.
“Last year we had a man who had two cats buried here 23 years ago and was moving up North. He had us cremate them so he could take their ashes.”
When the bodies were dug up they were, to his mild surprise, intact — sort of. They had not, however, been embalmed.
“We had a guy from Wayne State who knew what nature can do, and he wanted his dog embalmed,” says Bill. Alas, he could find no willing funeral home. “They feared sanitary problems, and also losing their license to embalm homo sapiens,” Bill explains.
In the end, the guy’s furry best friend had to go back to nature in the natural state. But he will rest in memory there forever. At Heavenly Acres, there is an additional fee ($100) for lifetime maintenance and flowers. (Yes, some do request them.) You can also have a private service, and be with Felix until he is rolled individually into the crematorium.
Some owners skip the middleman. “One man brought his [dead] dog in a limousine, and four cars followed in a funeral procession.”
If death occurs at home, Bill and Tammy will come get the remains for $40.
What all this says about us as a society may be best left for another post-mortem. But before you are tempted to be too hard this Halloween week on those who can’t let go, consider this: Whatever may have happened to poor Ted Williams, nobody has ever brought in a champion collie and asked Heavenly Acres to freeze it. Not yet, anyway.Jack Lessenberry is a Metro Times columnist. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org