NICHOLASVILLE — When Ashley Hausner's miniature dachshund, Lilo, died three weeks ago, she called on a new business in Nicholasville to help her say goodbye to her best friend.
The owners of Tender Heart Pet Memorial Center funeral home picked up Lilo's body from a veterinary hospital and placed it in a custom-made pink pillow-lined coffin.
In a viewing area at the pet funeral home on North Main Street, Hausner, who lives in Lexington, and three friends attended a visitation before Lilo, who was 5, was buried.
Much as at a human's burial service, Hausner followed behind the pet funeral home owners as they drove Lilo to a pet cemetery.
"Her visitation and burial brought the closure I needed to begin healing," said Hausner, 23, a nurse. "My dog was more than a dog. She was part of my family."
With the Oct. 1 opening of Tender Heart Pet Memorial Center, owners Mary and Mike Carter and Mary's son and daughter-in-law, Geoff and Joanna Brewer, say they are the first to operate a full-service pet funeral home — with a visitation area — in Central Kentucky.
At least one mainstream funeral home in Kentucky offers burial and cremation to pet owners.
Harrod Brothers Funeral Home, which has served humans in Frankfort for 65 years, does not hold funeral services for pets, but it opened a division called TenderCare Pet Bereavement Services, which has helped 500 to 600 pet owners in the last five years with burials, cremations and memorial products, said owner Will Harrod.
In Northern Kentucky, Lorie Clary opened Faithful Friends Pet Memory Center in Florence 1½ years ago and said she's helped 278 clients.
Emilee High, communications coordinator of the Wisconsin-based National Funeral Directors Association, said pets are "a growing venue of funeral service."
"The death of a pet can be just as traumatic as the loss of a human," High said.
In addition to operating seven funeral homes for humans, Michael R. St. Pierre, the 2007-2008 President of the National Funeral Directors Association, owns a pet crematorium in Indianapolis.
"At our national convention," said St. Pierre, "a lot of funeral directors were looking at pet urns and pet memorial products."
Perceiving a need
Mary Carter said she and her family experienced the death of pets and realized there were few services for grieving pet owners.
Carter said she got the idea to open the Nicholasville pet funeral home after seeing a woman on television who held a formal funeral for her pet.
The Carters researched pet bereavement services and traveled to Georgia in July to see a pet funeral home.
"It's a service that we can offer to people so they can get a form of closure that they wouldn't get otherwise," said Mary Carter.
In Kentucky, Geoff Brewer said, his family needed no other special permits than a business license to open a pet funeral home.
The funeral home keeps business hours Monday through Saturday but the owners take calls 24 hours a day just like funeral homes for humans. At the funeral home, clients can pick out urns, custom-made coffins, grave markers and many other items.
So far, their clients include one cat owner. The rest had dogs.
Geoff Brewer said prices range from $225 to $425, not including a coffin or a burial plot in a pet cemetery on Evans Mill Road in Fayette County.
Hauser needed a coffin and a burial plot because she lives in a townhouse and doesn't have a yard. She estimates she spent $620.
Hausner said that, at her request, the Tender Heart owners also provided a clay footprint of Lilo's and some of her hair as a keepsake.
A tribute that Hausner wrote to Lilo and a photo of the dog hang on the wall of the pet funeral home, along with other memorials of departed animals.
Soon, animals being carried to the cemetery will ride in a vehicle that resembles a hearse, Geoff Brewer said. For now, the pet funeral home uses a sport utility vehicle.
On Monday, Alice Adkins of Nicholasville made prearrangements at Tender Heart for her 14-year-old lab mix, Trish, who has cancer.
"They'll come to my home and pick her up at any time," said Adkins. "I bought an urn with them and arranged for the crematorium. With a high-end urn, it will cost about $300. "It will be a lot easier to be on autopilot instead of trying to make arrangements when I'm upset."
That's the idea behind Tender Heart, says co-owner Mike Carter: "We want to make our pet parents as comfortable as possible."
Another client, Kathy Hume of Lexington, said she ran into Mary Carter soon after the business opened last month, when Hume was losing her 9-year-old brindle-colored boxer, Tyson.
"We're not the type to go all out and have a funeral, but we wanted him treated with care," said Hume. "Mary was very caring. At the vet's office, she put him in a clean white blanket and at the funeral home, we had a private moment with his ashes."
After buying a cherry box for the ashes, Hume said, her family spent $220.
'They were very helpful'
In Frankfort, Harrod Brothers owns a pet crematorium in a location separate from that of the human crematorium.
Former Franklin County Judge Executive Bob Arnold said that he called on Harrod Brothers twice in the last several months to help with the burials of his wife's basset hound, Willie, as well as Arnold's guide dog, a black lab named Onyx.
"We wanted them buried in the back yard. They sent someone right over. They were very helpful," said Arnold.
In Florence at Faithful Friends Pet Memory Center, Clary said she doesn't have a formal viewing area, but she helps clients hold private services and will go to a home or a veterinary office to pick up a pet after its death. Clary also offers pet coffins, urns and memorial items such as a certificate of passing, markers and paw prints. A basic cremation for a dog weighing under 25 pounds costs about $145, she said.
Full service fairly rare
Coleen Ellis, who opened her first full-service funeral home Pet Angel Memorial Service in the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, Indiana in 2004 and now has three other franchises across the country, said full-service pet funeral homes are still fairly rare.
"We're serving 400 families a month," said Ellis. "There are doggie day cares and doggie spas. Why wouldn't it be that way in death? I see it coming out of a trend and just becoming a way of life."
Mary Carter says in just one month in operation in Central Kentucky, she and her family realize that they are doing more than running a business: "You have to have the ability to feel the emotion that people are feeling."
She says they are helping people through what High, the communication coordinator at the National Funeral Directors Association, describes as "a big life event just as the death of a human."