The Forever Pets chapel, Thames. Photo / HC Post
Adrian Catran has seen more heartache than most as the owner of New Zealand’s longest serving funeral home – but the final goodbye by a beloved pet owner is grief that’s sometimes unbearable to watch.
The owner of Twentymans Funeral Services in Thames opened a pet crematorium, Forever Pets, in 2019.
He believes it is the country’s only purpose built pet cremator.
“In my humble opinion, the grief and emotion around pets is greater than around human beings.
“We’ve been known to cry and walk away because of tears in our eyes, it’s very sad,” says Adrian. “There seems to be something about pets’ 24-7 unconditional love.”
Forever Pets caters to children’s companions – like budgies and guinea pigs for $75 – and rabbits, cats and dogs for fees ranging from $195 to $375 depending on weight.
Adorned with pictures of animals, the cremator is in a restored heritage building – the former Chas Judd factory – and sits beside the human cremator that took seven years to gain consent.
Last week Forever Pets staff collected a deceased dog that lived with other pets. One of these dogs had visible tears in his eyes – he was crying.
“I’d never seen that before,” says staff member Amba Catran. “I knew they grieved but I didn’t know dogs could cry.”
Adrian says it’s known that animals grieve – the losses of their fellow animals as well as their owners.
“Elephants are often quoted as the animals that stand around and pay respect to their deceased. When I was growing up on the farm and an animal died, we took all the other working dogs with us on a trailer to be there when we buried the dog who had died.”
Adrian can still remember all his family’s working dogs’ names.
All staff at Twentymans are pet owners, and the Twentymans team has animals on staff too. Twentymans’ beagles Madeline and Poppy follow Adrian everywhere.
Other late Twentymans’ animals like “therapy dog” Milly, a beagle who gave support to many grieving families over many years, and ragdoll cats Bella, who joined the team as a rescue cat in 2014, Tommi and Molly are all buried with their own tombstones on the Twentymans’ grounds.
As a funeral director and undertaker, Adrian has witnessed companion animals lying on the body of their deceased owner when he has arrived to collect the person.
“I’ve seen that with Jack Russell terriers, and I’ve seen cats sitting on the beds. Dogs know when the owners die and follow us out to the hearse. I always encourage families to bring their animals into the room so they can say goodbye too. Sometimes people bring their pets into the crematorium to say a final goodbye.”
As for animals themselves, more than 270 have “passed over the rainbow bridge” and been cremated at Forever Pets.
Included is the famous Blue, a three-legged dog adopted by a widowed man with one leg, as portrayed in a heart-wrenching advert for Trustpower. Blue died on January 11 and owner Karynne thanked the Forever Pets staff for treating her and her celebrity dog with such care and respect.
Adrian says for many people, and especially people living alone with a pet, the loss of an animal should be treated with the tenderness and compassion of a human loss.
“I know myself, I cry my eyes out when I lose a beagle.”
Forever Pets collects the animal if requested in the dedicated pet vehicle. Unlike other crematoriums, each animal is cremated individually and not beside other animals to avoid mixing of ashes.
Owners can take whatever time they need for quiet reflection in a bespoke chapel before the pet is taken to the cremator. A choice of urns is available once the process is complete.
Morrinsville retired farmer Paul Smith was at the Forever Pets chapel saying goodbye to 4-month-old kitten Kimie last week, who accidentally died possibly in the jaws of a neighbour’s labrador pup.
Paul is no stranger to grief, having lost a son who was 11, and both parents within two months of each other. As a former train driver for New Zealand railways, he was at the engine when there were two fatal accidents on the line.
“They come back to haunt me, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. One was a 10-year-old boy given a bike for his birthday, and the arms were down and the bells were ringing.”
He says the process is similar with animals he’s lost over the years.
“It’s very close to losing a family member because your pet is family. A dog knows when it has done wrong and will put its head on your lap and look at you with big brown eyes. They love with an unconditional love.
“A lot of people will hide their emotions because they think it’s not manly to weep and show grief. It doesn’t work like that. The stiff upper lip is a load of rubbish.”
He knows some people feel too distraught to replace a pet.
“It’s not the same but another animal will help with the healing process. An animal will pick you, too. I got Kimie from Morrinsville Cat Rescue, and you sit there and one of the kittens will come and say ‘it’s you’. It might be the scrawniest looking oddball, but if it has picked you, it wants you.”
Adrian says as people move houses more frequently than they once did, garden burials are less of a comfort to owners and the pet cremation business has become a needed service.
“One woman was moving overseas and she disinterred her previous dogs from the garden and we collected them as she went, for cremation. Eight or nine weeks after we cremated the first, she found the other two.”
He says owners can request when an animal is being euthanased that this happens at home, and he suggests the pet stay at home for a day or two after death.
“We treat each pet as though it was somebody’s son or daughter, we would never put them in a plastic bag.
“We also encourage owners to spend some time to say goodbye in our pet chapel. If circumstances don’t allow it, we’ll take our time talking to the animal, pat it beforehand. The beagles follow me, Poppy will accept death here but Madeline is a little more spooked by it.”
Adrian says he has invited vets to visit the pet crematorium and is critical of them for not supporting the service.
“They use an Auckland and a Hamilton pet cremator, which gives the vets a wholesale price for doing the cremation, so the vets get a wholesale price and can charge a retail price to the pet owner.
“Our retail price is the same as their wholesale price. And we guarantee one pet per chamber. In Auckland, they’ll put in up to 16, in Hamilton up to four.”
When the time comes to burial or cremation for his own animals, Adrian prefers his pets are buried.
“It’s the same for me. Cremation is too sudden. We spend however many years here and are turned into ashes in minutes. I want to rest in peace.”