DEAD PETS SOCIETY

HERE'S THE PLOT: A BOY AND HIS DOG GO EVERYWHERE TOGETHER. EVERYWHERE.

Sitting in an office surrounded by a doghouse-shaped cremation urn, a bone-shaped bronze memorial marker and a grief therapy brochure offering tips on disposing of a dead pet's "belongings," Alex Neff unsuccessfully fights back a grin.

For a fleeting second, he looks like the cat who swallowed the canary--rather fitting for a guy who's been chosen to manage the Valley's first zoologically integrated cemetery.

"Yeah, I took quite a bit of kidding when I told people about this job," smiles Neff, head of a new pet annex at Sun City's Sunland Memorial Park and Mortuary. "In fact, I kind of giggled myself the first time I heard about it."

Neff wasn't the only one who thought it sounded a little funny to let eternally sleeping dogs lie so close to their deceased masters. So did Sunland's parent company, which three years ago nixed a proposal to allow pets to be buried in the Sun City site. But Neff reports that corporate pooh bahs thought twice after a band of Sun City animal lovers challenged that decision by collecting 4,000 signatures during a petition drive. Suddenly aware of the community's crying need for a pet cemetery (not to mention the huge profit potential in selling 15,000 two-foot by four-foot gravesites at $205 apiece), Sunland decided it was time to go to the dogs.

Not that these particular dogs had any place to go: Although the Valley once boasted several pet parks, only the San Tan Pet Cemetery in Queen Creek is still accepting new boarders.

Asked what happens to that vast majority of pets who never make it to a viewing room, Neff grimaces uneasily, an expression that might be interpreted as "Don't look in the dumpster!"

"If the animal was cremated, sometimes the people will want the ashes back," he shrugs. "Otherwise, they'll leave the disposal up to the vet, and I imagine those animals will just go into a landfill. Most folks don't seem to realize that a vet doesn't have a magical burial ground out behind his office somewhere."

Just how many of the country's other human cemeteries have opened their gates to the furred, feathered or finned, Neff can't say.

Nor can the International Association of Pet Cemeteries, an organization dedicated to upgrading the image of the estimated 300 to 400 pet cemeteries currently operating in the country. (In 1978, industry observers cringed when a prankster revealed how he'd paid a Los Angeles pet cemetery $300 to bury "Blinky the Friendly Hen"--in reality, a Foster Farms fryer he'd picked up in a supermarket meat case. Following the funeral, photographically documented as a performance art piece, the mourners adjourned to Howard Johnson's for a chicken dinner.)

"We have a history of pets and humans being buried together going way back," explains Wendell Morse, president of the pet cemetery organization, which is based in South Bend, Indiana. "What is a recent development is people are finally talking about this today and they're being openly allowed to grieve over the loss of a pet." A longtime veterinarian, Morse claims it wasn't many years ago that grieving pet owners would fight back tears rather than show any emotion after Fido expired in his animal hospital. Morse explains that the new trend of opening cemeteries to nonhuman family members is one way to help survivors cope with their loss.

"The people I've dealt with thus far are just as attached to their animals as any other family member," agrees Neff, who has already sold a number of "pre-need" plots to owners of still-living pets. And while virtually all of those animals have been dogs and cats, Neff claims that Sunland is prepared to handle anything that ever walked, crawled, swam, slithered or flew.

"If somebody has a horse, we can inter it out here, too," he says. "A pet's a pet." To prove the point, he flips open an advertising folder distributed by Faithful Friends, a Pittsburgh company that manufactures pet gravestones. The flier lists nearly 100 different bronze insignia, ranging from chihuahuas and parakeets to turtles and squirrels.

Recognizing that there are people who probably wouldn't be thrilled at the prospect of spending eternity parked next to a decomposing gerbil, Neff stresses that five-acre pet park is clearly separate from the rest of the cemetery. In fact, the area is so isolated from the human sector that for years Sunland management has allowed the Sun City Agricultural Club to use a portion of those undeveloped grounds as a produce garden, while the Sun City Lions' Club uses another nearby tract as a recycling center.

Now operating out of the cemetery's general offices (which are disconcertingly surrounded by a lawn full of sample gravestones for the fictional human dead), Neff's pet operations will soon move to a 1,500-square-foot building near the pet park proper. Scheduled for a formal dedication on September 9--that's National Pet Cemetery Day--the facilities will include a casket selection room, grooming quarters and two viewing rooms. Also on the horizon: a columbarium for the storage of cremated pets.

"We've only been selling since the first of July but we've already had a lot of people come in and ask for niche space," reports Neff. "They've already got cremated remains at home." (Because Sunland is forbidden by law from using its human crematorium for animals, the cemetery works with a pet crematory.) Between a funeral plot, a casket, a gravestone, a concrete vault (necessary to prevent the ground from caving in when a wooden casket has disintegrated) and other incidentals, Neff estimates the average cost of laying a pet to rest at $400--a price that can quickly skyrocket, particularly if a larger animal is to be interred or a fancier sendoff is desired. Neff, with ten years of human funeral home experience under his belt, says, "We're prepared to offer folks the same services as if they walked into a regular funeral home."

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