The last roundup

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Animal companions large and small rest in peace at Evergreen Memorial Park's pet cemetery

By Carol McKinley, for the Courier

Rest, best friends.  

Nell’s Ladybug lies here, as do Muffy Pumpkin and Rocky Doodle Clinton. Spot and Elsie Yu have been rewarded for the love the rabbits gave their family with a stately grave marker that proclaims, “Hopping in Heaven.” 

On another marker is a picture of Ri the German shepherd and a poignant farewell: “Good night, sweet prince. We’ll see you in the morning.” 

The pet cemetery at Evergreen Memorial Park is not as  much about the dogs and bunnies, cattle and even elk buried there as it is about helping owners deal with the loss when a four-legged companion dies. 

“Our calling is to deal with people who lose pets. We help them heal,” says longtime owner Ron Lewis. At 80-plus years old, he still strolls his departed-animal empire with a steady step. Evergreen’s only pet cemetery has 1,100 graves; the grassy expanse has provided solitude for grieving pet owners for half a century. 

A booming, but unregulated, industry

Evergreen Memorial is one of only a handful of pet cemeteries in the country that bury horses, which requires a 6-by-8-foot grave that must be dug with a backhoe. 

“On the East Coast, there just isn’t enough land to accommodate full-body burial,” says Donna Bethune, executive administrator of the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories.

The pet bereavement industry is booming. Bethune says memorials for pets are among the fastest growing "death care" markets in the United States and Canada. There are about 750 “pet after-care” facilities in the U.S., compared with close to none a decade ago. 

It’s a “pet owner be aware” situation, though, as the industry is unregulated — and that means the grieving sometimes are taken advantage of. In one case in New York, a crematorium dumped dogs' bodies on the side of the road. 

“We have a standards and ethics committee which oversees our membership,” says Bethune of the IAPCC. Still, with no state or federal regulatory agency, she advises pet owners to take responsibility by burying their beloved companions in a physical location. “If you are using cremation through a vet,” she says, “insist on having the cremains delivered back to the clinic.”  

That can also be a scam, warns Lewis, “… because if you’ve had your Chihuahua cremated and you get a huge amount of ashes, that’s a good hint that they didn’t give you back your dog. Sometimes people find the tags to the wrong animal mixed in with their own.”

Evergreen Memorial Park's pet service, which includes a cemetery and crematory, is a member of the IAPCC. Here it costs up to $1,000 to bury a horse. The price to cremate an animal ranges from $120 to $190, depending on whether it’s a gerbil, a cat or a mastiff. Markers start at $450. Caskets can be bought with satin or fur lining; they come in plastic, metal and eco-pine.  

'A bonding between pets and people'

The land on Turkey Creek Road between Evergreen and Conifer was a hayfield when minister Ron Lewis and his wife, Carol, bought it in 1964. Lewis built the chapel with his own hands with weathered wood from five barns, adding a personal touch: stained glass at the eaves.  

“I’ve conducted a number of services for a horse where families come and eulogize. We bury the horse and saddle and bridle it up. … In the meantime, the mother-in-law dies and they say, ‘Can’t you get rid of her?’ ” 

It’s a fact, Lewis says, that people visit their pets’ graves more than they do the human ones. 

“There’s a bonding between pets and people, because there’s a response from the pet unconditionally. When people come to us with a pet, many of them fall apart.”

One blind woman spent an entire day lying across the fresh grave of her precious seeing-eye dog. There’s a monkey buried here; its owners asked Lewis to bury a ladder underground so that its spirit could climb out whenever it wanted to.  

Another woman had her iguana’s ashes ground into a fine dust. She then mixed them with red wine and drank the concoction to give her “dragon strength.”

This year, Ron and Carol Lewis will bury up to 50 horses to join Poco, who survived 25 years as “Beloved Family Member and Fool’s Best Buddy.” 

In 50 years, the Lewises have never seen a ghost. 

“But,” he says, “you can sometimes hear the laughter of the children who used to play in the barn."