Jacob Bielanski

Artisanal journalist

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When Pets Pass

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It is an unassuming-looking place in an unassuming neighborhood—Norplex Drive, itself, looks like a kind of a graveyard for La Crosse’s aging industries. Perhaps unassuming is exactly what one needs when arranging the cremation of a beloved friend.

Within these taupe-hued walls are the offices of Companions Always, a pet cremation service that has opened its doors in La Crosse. In an industrial-looking room lies a highly efficient cremation machine, the same model from Matthews Cremation Division (no relation to the Matthew’s Bow Company) that can be used for human corpses. The cremation oven is a surprisingly beautiful piece of equipment, with a corrugated chrome exterior that creates clean lines and a bright sheen on a box no larger than a small moving trailer. The control panel is simple, amounting to little more than a few timers and switches—the $65,000+ machine is clearly designed to serve one, albeit macabre, purpose.

The process of cremating an animal is as clean and professional as that machine. If possible, the staff takes an inking of the paw or hoofs and salvage personal items at the owner’s request. The animal is identified and separated from others in preparation for the burn. Afterwards, the individual remains are carefully processed and placed in an oak box or one of many other elaborate options. Staff will even hand deliver the final remains, considering it somewhat tasteless to deliver such an emotional package via traditional parcel services.

In front of the machines, oak urns, death certificates and a van that covers cities as far away as Mauston, are the faces of people who daily share strangers’ most difficult burden. “People view pets differently today than they did when I was growing up,” says Don Jobe, owner and operator of Companions Always.

Debbie Braund, who handles Companions Always’ daily operations, agrees, “Pets are even more important to people these days,” she posits, “because there so much non-human contact.”

Up until roughly 18 months ago, owners of deceased pets in the La Crosse area had few options for sanitary disposal, much less dignified burial. A common option for many is to bury the deceased. The Walnut Grove Pet Cemetery—owned by Edward’s Investments—provides one option, but the property sits just outside of Holmen off Highway TT, an inconvenient distance for many of the bereaved. Even Dennis Knight, DVM for Coulee Mobile Vet had to rely on a bi-weekly pickup from a crematorium out of Poynette. For many, this lack of services left a variety of less-than-sanitary options, particularly when the owner has a close connection.

“Normally [when] people call me, they’re in tears,” says Braund, “I’ll be saying ‘take you time, catch your breath, when you’re ready to talk, I’m right here’.”

Though such lamentation from pet owners may seem unfounded, there is a growing concern nationwide for the grief experienced by those who have lost their furry (or feathered) companion. Dr. Shawn P Messonnier is a veterinarian and columnist for The Dallas Morning News, and in a column dated May 1st of 2002 he responded to a grieving man. The gentleman was deeply hurt following the euthanizing of his dog and friends felt he was overacting to the death. “As someone who has seen several of his own pets die, I know the grief you feel is very real,” write Messonnier, “you should know that your emotions are a normal part of the five stages of grieving.”

It seems to be this closeness to death, rather than a cold, professional disassociation from it that enables people to work in this field. Braund, for example, says she has “had to use [the] burner twice…” in the short time Companions Always has been operating—once for a dog who died of old age and again for a dog who died young. Knight, as a veterinarian, expresses a dichotomy in dealing with the passing of other peoples’ pets. “Of course, I try to contain my emotions so I can provide a service at a professional capacity,” say Knight, “however, there are times when it is quite challenging.”

You can see it throughout the offices at Companions, little pieces of the times when staff have had the business of death come dangerously close to their own hearts. At every turn, beautiful photographs of dogs and cats—often pictured with their loved ones—hang on the walls. It might seem eerie if staff wasn’t so optimistic.

The business—or rather the service—of a dignified death is as diverse in the world of animals as it is in the human world; perhaps even more so. Arrangements have been made for animal ashes to be buried along with their human counterpart, or for ashes to be divided among multiple urns, a piece of the mortal remains given separate family members. The option is also available for the remains to be compressed into a stone, cut, polished and made into jewelry though, Jobe notes, none of their clients has yet requested it.

It seems strange to define a business under such auspices. Jobe, as a former executive of AlliedSignal (merged into Honeywell International Inc. in 1999) and Isola Laminate Systems, clearly brings a keen knowledge of operating a successful business. Yet the “product” seems to go far beyond anything tangible—urns, caskets, certificates and transportation seem to be auxiliary functions of an emotional product. There is a service to be offered—not in the operation of a cremation machine—but in comfort and closure. “It’s a business that is good for the community and and family,” says Braund, “but it’s a business that I think is…awesome.”

It begs the question: how does dealing with all this death and the surrounding emotions affect one’s outlook on life? Jobe admits to having not had a pet for quite some time but notes that his son—a licensed mortician—currently owns a pet. “I think it’s given [me] a lot more compassionate conception [sic],” says Jobe “it goes beyond just being a dog or being a cat…it’s somebody’s loved one and you want to care for it as such.”

Though one never likes to imagine having to use such a service for their own pet, it’s good to know that the inevitability will be met with a comforting hug and a healthy dose of sympathy. Says Braund, “Whenever we see people we say, ‘it’s a pleasure meeting you and, as much as we’d like to see you again, hopefully we don’t see you for a very long time’.”

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