For whatever reason our streets are filled with lonely souls, and only the more fortunate have a hug when they get home. They shed their kindness and pour their hearts out in their only moments of conversation.
For many, this love of their life is a dog, cat or even a pet turtle if they’re into hugging testudines. There are also the gifted owners with precious friends and indelible family bonds that also adopt a pet and share the love.
Then, after years as a treasured friend or family-like member, the pet dies. Those who have never owned one wonder why the tears, perhaps suggesting it was “only a dog” or whatever. Of course, they are always so much more, and their owners grieve.
After almost 13 years as an undertaker at Elliott Funeral Services, and as a high school teacher, John Whitman recognised a need for pet owners to be able to say goodbye to their ‘loved one’ who just happens to be a pet during a formalised funeral service as we would for a relative or friend.
It may seem an unusual career path, but as John says his pet funeral business, Farewell Little Friends across the Fleurieu is also about people and caring. The challenge is often trying to explain to non-pet owners how genuine one’s grief can be at the loss of a pet. Think how those lonely souls feel when they suddenly walk into an empty house.
John conducts a funeral service for pets typical of what we do for humans – delivering a eulogy or inviting the owners or friends say a few words. He reads his self-written poems, offers a time for reflection whilst playing music, says a prayer if requested, and expresses the life of the pet with images on a screen. Farewell Little Friends can, in many cases, arrange a coffin to be specially made, or have the pet cremated by Victor Harbor-based licensed pet crematorium Paws to Reflect and upon request the ashes returned in an urn.
Costs may vary, from $245 for the scattering of ashes, but not including the cremation fee, and $295 for a burial, not including digging the grave. And yes, that Celine Dion 1997 hit My Heart Will Go On that we often hear at regular services is also a tear-jerker at John’s canine and feline funerals.
“The committal can vary, whether it be religious or non-religious,” John said. “Death in all cases is as unique as the person who is grieving, and it depends whether people see their pet as a pet or as a family member.”
John said that after he launched his business almost two years ago with great support from his wife, Esther, he had a stall at the Royal Adelaide Show, and admitted he copped criticism, even abuse from those who thought the concept of having a pet funeral was being insensitive.
“I have been accused of being disgusting and exploiting people, but I love what I do because I am offering a chance for people who are grieving for their pet, who often is their best friend, to say goodbye,” John said. “I can assure you the sensitivity and caring for the person and their pet is there.
“For many people, they have only their pet to talk to, and they don’t answer back. They offer unconditional love; in difficult circumstances family members may not be able to be there while their pet is always by their side. The bond becomes strong.”
John would love to develop a pet cemetery, but it is difficult for councils to commit to such a project. If owners prefer, they may have their pet buried at a pet cemetery in Wallaroo.
John is now looking for a support group for people who have lost their pet. He says people often become distraught, and dealing with their loss among those also suffering may offer respite in their time of grief. The pain is very real, he adds.
“Some people may mock all this or consider what I do is unusual, but maybe they don’t think a pet is worth it; they don’t understand how intense the grief can be for some who have lost a pet,” John said. “That’s fine to have an opinion as long as they don’t upset someone who has lost a pet in the process.”
John has also had his unusual requests, like the person who wanted a service and cremation for their pet chicken. The vision in one’s mind brought a change of heart of the evening meal, but John took the call seriously even though the person later declined to follow up the request.
“Yes, I take these things very seriously,” John said. “We should never under-estimate the impact the death of a pet may have on someone.”
It was once said that death ends a life not a relationship. Still miss you Oskar and Lucy.