There's Never Been a Better Time to Be a Dead PetEric Spitznagel
Bob Walczyk owns and operates two funeral businesses in Green Bay, Wis. The Proko-Wall Funeral Home and Crematory is exclusively for humans, while Forever Friends caters to the deceased of the four-legged variety. But only one of his services attracts hagglers.
“When people come to the funeral home and I tell them how much it is to cremate their grandfather, it’s never cheap enough for them,” says Walczyk. “They’ll say, ‘How much? You’ve got to be kidding me!’ But when the exact same family brings their dog next door, they don’t even ask about money. They just tell me what they want and they take out their checkbook.”
Walczyk’s family has been in the funeral business for more than 40 years—his dad opened their first funeral home in 1970—but it was his idea to do a pet-only offshoot, after doing market research to determine customer interest. Since launching Forever Friends in 2003, Walczyk claims that sales have risen by a staggering 524 percent. “We’re not a million-dollar business,” he says. “But we’re doing very, very well.”
And he’s not alone. According to the Atlanta-based International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories—the nonprofit behind National Pet Memorial Day, an annual celebration designed to “increase awareness of the many options available to memorialize pets” (including pet blessings and candlelight vigils), to be held Sunday, Sept. 9—there were just a handful of pet aftercare facilities in the U.S. less than a decade ago (so few, in fact, that nobody bothered to count them all). Today there are about 700 nationwide, including funeral homes, crematories, and cemeteries. There are no statistical data on their profitability—it’s a growing if untracked segment of the pet care industry, which brought in $52.87 billion in 2011—but insiders are more than happy to brag. “If you’re in this business right now,” says Tom Flynn, the president of Hillcrest-Flynn Pet Funeral Home and Crematory in Hermitage, Pa., “you’re just sailing with the wind right at your back.”
Hillcrest first opened as a human-only funeral home and cemetery in 1935, and didn’t begin offering pet burials until 2006. Since then, its profits (at least on the pet end of the business) have jumped consistently by 25 percent every year. And customers are coming from farther distances than usual. Because Hillcrest is located so close to the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, it rarely gets customers traveling from Ohio for human burials. “If grandpa dies, why would you take him to a funeral home in Pennsylvania?” Flynn says. “He was an Ohio State fan, not a Penn State fan.” But when finding a final resting place for pets, geography doesn’t matter as much. “They’ll go where they know their pet will be taken care of,” he says,
Nobody is able to pinpoint the exact demographic responsible for the industry’s financial boom. Some pet funeral directors point to baby boomers, who have increasingly turned to pets for companionship after their spouses die or their children leave home. But pet funerals in recent years have been purchased just as often by people in their 20s and 30s, many of whom opted not to become parents and treat their pets as surrogate children. “You really can’t put your finger on it,” says Ed Martin Jr., the director of Hartsdale Pet Cemetery and Crematory in Hartsdale, N.Y. “I used to think this was something for older women who never had children. Or very wealthy people. But we get everybody: men, women, rich, poor, young, old.”
Part of the attraction might be the growing variety of burial options. Back in the 1970s, Shugart’s Deceased Pet Care in Atlanta—the brainchild of Doyle Shugart, a human funeral director—was almost an underground operation. “(Customers) would ask him to come in an unmarked car,” says daughter Donna Shugart-Bethune. “They didn’t want their neighbors to know.” The company now offers more services, according to Shugart-Bethune, “than you’d find at a human funeral home.” There are the expected high-ticket items, like bronze grave markers ($1,765) and velvet-lined caskets ($1,135). But there are also unconventional options, like freeze-drying and embalming. “My dad really perfected the art of embalming pets,” Shugart-Bethune says. Business has been so good that the operation recently moved to a two-floor, 8,000-square-foot building with enough room to accommodate multiple pet funerals.
Peternity, an online superstore, is like a Target for pet grieving. Products range from headstones ($80 to $425) to urns (a “hand veneered” version goes for $1,500) to stained glass portraits ($200) to garden sculptures (upwards of $2,750). Colleen Mihelich, the Brea (Calif.)-based founder and creative director, created the site in 2003, and according to her records, 2011 sales have been up 14,043 percent since inception, with an anticipated 29,460 percent increase in 2012. “We’re projecting to hit mid-six-figure sales this year,” she says. The sky may be the limit, but it does come with compromises. “You can’t just offer what your tastes are,” she says. There are several products (which she declines to name) in the Peternity catalog that she personally finds unsettling. And there are some services she won’t sell at any price, despite their popularity. “I find pet taxidermy and freeze-drying to be a little creepy,” she says.
Those “creepy” services that Peternity doesn’t offer—be it freeze-drying, mummification, or even human/pet co-burial—are widely available elsewhere. If there’s an unorthodox way of memorializing a deceased loved one, it’s probably being sold to pet owners. And not always by choice. LifeGem, a company in Elk Grove Village, Ill., that uses the carbonized ashes from cremated remains to create synthetic diamonds (prices run from $2,490 to $25,000), wasn’t originally intended for animals. “We really didn’t want the stigma that this was just a pet thing,” says co-founder Dean VandenBiesen. But not long after LifeGem opened for business in 2002, the calls and e-mails started to flood in. “They were yelling at us, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you offer this for pets, too?’ They were really offended,” VandenBiesen says. Despite not directly marketing its services to pet owners, pets currently account for 25 percent of LifeGem’s business.
In an industry growing by leaps and bounds, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of opportunists. “I see people all the time wanting to capitalize on the pet funeral trend,” says Shugart-Bethune. “There are a lot of fly-by-night operations. They want to jump into an industry that they don’t necessarily understand. That’s the downside.” Coincidentally, Shugart-Bethune serves as executive administrator at the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories, whose upcoming convention in San Antonio (Sept. 14-17) promises “guidance and information to prospective business people interested in starting a pet cemetery, crematory, and/or funeral home,” all for just $649 per person. “People come from around the world for the convention,” says Shugart-Bethune. “They’ve come from as far away as China, South Africa, and France. They have pet aftercare in those countries, but they don’t offer the same level of service that we have here.”
For Walczyk, the blueprint for a successful pet funeral business couldn’t be more simple. “We just mirror what we’re doing at our regular human funeral home,” he says. At Forever Friends, the employees wear suits and ties at all times, even for body removals. “There are no jumpsuits or jeans and a golf shirt,” he says. Its main facility is decorated like a living room, and the phone is answered 24/7. But the most valuable secret he’s learned after years in the business, Walczyk says, is that selling a pet funeral means never offering the lowest price. Customers aren’t looking for value; they’re looking for quality.
“We’re the most expensive place in town,” Walczyk says with a laugh. “And everybody still comes to us.”