“We have ‘Kitty Haven’ — that section is just for cats. Most of the time, the cats and dogs are buried together. They don’t fight after they have gone."
“The first thing we have here by you at the desk in the pet cemetery office is the box of Kleenex,” says Velma Matthews. “That means, ‘We offer you our sympathy.’ The Kleenex is used by most clients. As they come in, they are tearful. They’re drowning. They’re in grief. They’re in shock. They talk to us, tell us what the pet died of. They will many times show us a picture of the pet, tell us little short stories of things it did. We’re almost like a psychiatrist. We just talk it out. We have our tears. ‘We need tissues,’” Matthews emphasizes.
Jill Siembieda: “If a person has a pet dying or that has died, I encourage him or her to write a poem, to write a letter to the pet."
For the past ten years she has been the owner of the Sorrento Valley Pet Cemetery. It is one of two pet cemeteries in the county (the second is the San Diego Pet Memorial Park in the Miramar area). “By the time we’ve taken the little pet and weighed it and measured it for burial and set up burial time — if burial is what the pet owner has requested — usually they’re much calmer. It is a very emotional business, a pet cemetery. By the end of the day, I’m drained.”
With a decrease in family size and the loosening of ties within the extended family, animal companions more and more play vital roles in human lives. Bookstore shelves, which until recently carried only Know Your Collie or How to Care for Your Manx, now offer such titles as Pet Massage and The Four-Footed Therapist: How Your Pet Can Help You Solve Your Problems. In the latter, Los Angeles psychotherapist Janet Ruckert, whose Rottweiler bitch acts as Ruckert’s “co-therapist,” notes: “In many cases, the animal unconsciously held the key to the human’s inner self.” As part of what Ruckert calls “petcology,” patients are encouraged to perform “psychological homework” with pets as helpers. In one petcological exercise, the client is instructed: “Sit with your pet in a quiet place. Stroke the animal, take a few breaths, and relax… Tell your pet about an important need of yours… As you express this need out loud to your pet, listen carefully to what you are saying… Clarifying your need may take some patience, but your pet has plenty of time.”
The newest growth sector of the billion-dollar-a-year pet care industry is “pet loss” or disruption of the “human animal companion bond.” Dennis Gale Olson, DVM, (Aardvark Animal Health Center in North County) and psychologist Lorri Greene lead a support group for those who incur pet loss. Olson and Greene started the group three years ago to provide a setting in which bereaved pet owners could vent grief in a sympathetic atmosphere. “Some people who suffer loss of an animal become extremely upset,” says Olson. “But there is very little societal support for those who grieve over the loss of a pet.”
The intensity of pain felt when a pet dies, says the veterinarian, often comes as a surprise to a pet owner. Not untypically, the “bereaved” can’t sleep, won’t eat, will burst out weeping. He may imagine he hears the “jingle of the pet’s collar, its scratch at the door.” He may wonder if he’s begun to “hear things,” if he’s gone “crazy.”
A pet owner may find himself so distressed that he seeks the help described in brochures such as those distributed in local veterinary clinics by Jill Siembieda, a “licensed counselor who has loved and lost several pets of her own.” (“For over ten years,” notes Siembieda’s pale blue brochure, “she has helped people through the grieving process when they’ve lost significant people and pets.”)
Siembieda, answering the door of her Scripps Ranch condominium, holds Poppi, an eight-pound, brown-and-white papillon. “Do you like dogs?” asks the trim, mid-fortyish Siembieda as she invites her visitors to sit on one of two white couches. Poppi hops onto the spotless upholstery. Her tail quivers as it feathers up and over her back. Poppi, whose veterinarian treats his patients by homeopathic methods, smells sharply of cinnamon. “An herbal-scented flea collar,” Siembieda explains.
“I told her veterinarian, ‘Poppi’s healthy. I know she’s going to live a long time. If anything were to happen to my husband and me (the Siembiedas are childless), I don’t know if Poppi should be put down.’ And Poppi’s vet said, ‘Poppi will make that decision. She’ll either bond to somebody else or she won’t.’
“I was so impressed with that, as opposed to this veterinarian in Alpine I once spoke to. He said, ‘People come in and they want their pets put to sleep. They’ve gone to other vets who won’t do it, because the vets say the pets aren’t that sick. I think,’ he said, ‘that the people who own the animals have a right to say when those animals should be put to sleep. Vets don’t have a right to tell them they can’t do that, if that’s what they want.’”
As a licensed clinical social worker with a specialization in grief counseling, Siembieda began to consider offering therapy for animal owners when she noted that people seeking counseling over human death often mentioned a previous loss of pets. “As we learn more about the value of pets in our lives over time,” she suggests, “people will begin to realize that pet loss is real, that the feelings are real. Then people may be more open to considering counseling. At this point, it’s fairly new. People think, ‘Oh, it’s silly.’”
Siembieda’s hourly fee is eighty-five dollars per session. She accepts insurance. “But if somebody has no insurance the lowest I will see them for is fifty dollars. Someone called and said, ‘I don’t think my insurance will pay for pet loss.’ I said, ‘You don’t call it that. I’m licensed. Just call it ‘depression, anxiety, grief reaction.’ I think it’s legitimate — pet loss is a life thing, and it affects your life.”
Veterinarians, Siembieda believes, don’t necessarily cope effectively with human feelings for pets. This is where the therapist can help. Take the matter of deciding whether or not to euthanize an animal. “What’s hard with euthanasia, for one thing, is the guilt. But it’s often a very humane thing to do when the quality of life is gone.” One of Siembieda’s clients, a man faced with the question of euthanizing his dog, “is having difficulty admitting to himself that his dog is dying. It’s got arthritis. It’s deaf. It’s blind. And he says things like, ‘Well, maybe if I just give him aspirin for his arthritis…’ You know the pet’s fading, but there’s that inability to let go — it’s painful, but that’s the reality.
“From my work with people grieving the loss of another human, I developed a way to help bereaved pet owners. I ask them to bring me pictures of the animal, to talk about good memories, the sadness, to cry. Crying is important.
“If a person has a pet dying or that has died, I encourage him or her to write a poem, to write a letter to the pet. Anything they’re open to doing. If they have a religious belief system or spiritual belief system, I may ask, ‘What do you think happens after they die?’ ‘Where do you think your pet is?’ Usually they say, ‘I think they’re at peace.’ ‘I think I’ll see them after they die.
“I can help people move through their grief. But you can’t replace your pet. Pets are not interchangeable. I’m not going to get another Poppi. She’s unique. I might get another pet I will love greatly. But it’s not going to be Poppi.
“When Poppi had her tenth birthday a year ago, we had a party. It took place at a duck pond in the park here, where she loves to walk. (That’s also where my husband and I got married. Poppi was at the wedding. She wore flowers.) So, for her birthday, we went out to the pond and did a ‘pet appreciation ceremony.’ Whoever wanted to could say whatever they wanted about their own pets, their feelings about pets. A friend read from Leo Buscaglia’s Bus Nine to Paradise. I read Poppi’s horoscope. My sister, who had lost two golden retrievers, said she was thinking about them. She was a little teary. But it wasn’t like a sad thing.”
Before her visitors take leave of her, Siembieda asks that they watch, with her, a videotape of a recent re-airing of ABC’s 20/20 that dealt with pet loss. Pointing out the box of Kleenex (on which the manufacturers had printed a kitten), Siembieda notes that everyone who watched this 20/20 segment (hosted by naturalist Roger Caras) had wept.
As the videotape flickers onto the television screen, Caras is speaking: “Unfortunately, we Americans are not very good at grieving for our pets. We still wear the stamp of the Victorian era. ‘Don’t be silly, it was just a dog.’” During the 15-minute segment (whose theme is the growing acceptance of grief counseling for animal owners who are experiencing, or who are soon to experience the loss of their companion pet), Siembieda dabs at her eyes with a tissue and caresses Poppi. When the segment ends and snow flashes across the screen, Siembieda, clearing her throat, asks, “Are you familiar with the book The Road Less Traveled? The first sentence in the book is something like ‘Life is tough, but once you realize that’s true, it isn’t so hard.’”
Asked how pet loss is dealt with in other countries, Siembieda says that in Mexico, “they feel differently about animals. They’re so poor. I don’t think they get as attached to the pets. Here, we can afford to have pets because we can afford to pamper, to pay for vets and food. Down there, they’re barely surviving. In the Orient, in some places they eat dogs. In India, they don’t. Very different views. Who’s to say what’s right or wrong? I just think we have to learn to value life in order to make peace. That’s my personal, basic belief.
“There’s a woman in Escondido, who, through visualization, can communicate with animals. A dog who’s old can tell her he’s ready to die. I heard her speak once. She said, ‘If we want to think we’re going to communicate with planets, or if there’s anyone out there, we first need to learn to communicate among our own inter-species. There’s a lot for us to learn from animals.’”
Back at Velma M. Matthews’ Sorrento Valley Pet Cemetery, it is a Wednesday afternoon, hot and humid. Six pets had been brought that day for cremation. Matthew’s office manager is recovering from surgery. With the exception of her groundsman and the drivers, who pick up pets from veterinarians or pet’s homes and bring them to the cemetery, Matthews is alone today at the cemetery. She has her hands full — preparing pets for cremation or burial, readying for a funeral in the chapel, directing groundsman to trim grass around cemetery markers. On Monday, she had cremated fourteen. The week before, she cremated twenty-three and buried three. (On average, Sorrento Valley has twelve cremations for every burial.)
Her light blonde hair is swept back from a face lit by clear blue eyes. Like a hummingbird in flight, Matthews never rests, is always in motion — tidying her desk or pacing her office floor. She speaks in the matter-of-fact tones of the registered nurse she trained to be: “I have a BS degree, a minor in psychology, a background in real estate and a love of pets, so it went together in the pet cemetery.”
Pet cemeteries tend to be “a husband and wife industry,” says Matthews (divorced and the mother of a grown son). “I just happen to be a single woman. If you devote yourself to a pet cemetery, you don’t have time for a man.”
But she does have miniature poodles. Drowsing on the office floor are the poodle matriarch, Mama Velma, and her sons Vincent and Weed, her brother and uncle Gordon, and Auntie Stella, the daughter of Matthews’ world champion Velmatt No No Noah.
With breaks to answer the telephone, to check the crematory (freestanding behind the brick-faced building that houses the pet cemetery office), Matthews tells that her pet cemetery was founded in 1955 by a Mr. and Mrs. Turner when Sorrento Valley “wasn’t anything except a place to picnic.” In 1978, Matthews, then active on the show circuits with champion poodles and Burmese cats, learned that the cemetery was for sale, took one look at it, and bought it. When people “make a farce” of the pet cemetery — as place or concept — Matthews becomes indignant: “It’s not a farce,” she says. “It’s been here thirty-three years, so we know it must be needed.”
Many “human cemeterians,” says Matthews, have branched out into pet cemeteries, and some states permit burying pets with humans. In California, however, this is not allowed. At least five of Sorrento Valley’s human clients have expressed a desire to be buried in the pet cemetery with their pets.
“There’s no reason why we can’t do this,” says Matthews, “except the human cemeterians don’t like the idea. They shouldn’t be angry about that. They’re not going to lose that much money.” (Matthews believes that no “true, recent law in California” disallows human burial in pet cemeteries, and she plans to get an interpretation of the state’s burial regulations.)
Worldwide, says Matthews, there are some 500 pet cemeteries. About 100 of those belong to the International Association of Pet Cemeteries (IAPC), of which Matthews is now vice president and next year will be president. (IAPC’s first president, in 1971, was George Umpus, owner of San Diego Pet Memorial Park.)
The IAPC, in its monthly publication and its annual meetings (the seventeenth of which will be held in September in Las Vegas), provides member cemeterians with information and guidance on everything from cemetery lawn care to newest pet preservation techniques, such as freeze-drying. At the September meeting, the association will sponsor, for members, a four-day grief counseling seminar, led by John James, author of The Grief Handbook.
To become an association member, a pet cemetery must have been established as a pet cemetery for five years. It must have three sets of records. It must have plot and landscape and endowment care plans, which guarantee that there will always be a fund from which to maintain the cemetery. The pet cemetery also must agree to follow the IAPC code of ethics, which covers misleading advertising and shady sales practices, among other things.
Today, says Matthews, whose Sorrento Valley holding encompasses one and one-third acres, the IAPC recommends that a pet cemetery “shouldn’t be started at all, shouldn’t even be thought of unless you have five acres. And most pet cemeteries that have opened in the past decade have seven to ten acres available.”
Except in the yellow pages and in an occasional issue of a magazine for pet owners, Matthews buys no advertising. She does, however, make dog tags imprinted with the cemetery’s phone number and address, and she places forms from which to order the tags at veterinary clinics. “We’ve made the tags for years. They let pet owners know we’re here.” Word of mouth provides a significant number of new clients. And the many “family” plots in which one family, over a period of years, has buried its succession of pets, attest to a large number of satisfied clients.
Her pet cemetery, says Matthews, does not play upon the grief of its human clients. “We want to fit a client’s pocketbook. One of my first clients, soon after I purchased the pet cemetery, was a woman living in Rancho Santa Fe. Her dog had died. She said, ‘I want the very best you have.’ Well, the very best we had was only $1000. That’s a bronze baby casket, and that was our very best. She was surprised.”
More than 5000 pets are laid to rest in Sorrento Valley’s grounds. (The IAPC estimates that in the United States only one percent of all pets that die are cremated by or buried in pet cemeteries.) Five horses have graves here. The horses were walked to the cemetery, then euthanized, then buried. “We don’t take horses anymore,” says Matthews. “To bury them, you have to get very deep. You have to go down so far, it takes a backhoe. We hand dig all our graves.”
Small pets interred at Sorrento Valley include hamsters, guinea pigs, lop-eared rabbits, a boa constrictor. “A tech who works for one of the hospitals,” says Matthews, “had some white laboratory rats that were her favorites. I cremated them for her.”
The smallest pet ever buried at Sorrento Valley belonged to a woman who has buried a number of parakeets in the cemetery. Indicating rows of urns and caskets displayed on shelves along one office wall, Matthews points out a casket, not much bigger than a kitchen match box, lined with white satin and outfitted with a matching satin pillow. “For parakeets,” she says, “we use this little casket.”
On other shelves and on the carpet rest similar caskets, in various sizes and styles. Set above them all, on a platform, is a bronze casket, its lid open, revealing an interior of cushioned and pleated cream-colored satin. “That’s a human baby casket,” says Matthews. Its size, she notes, will accommodate a medium size dog.
She walks across the office and picks up a bronze urn, designed to hold cremated remains. “These are very lovely. Spun bronze.” The price tag reads ninety dollars. She shows a small box on which a dogwood flower has been carved. “These are made in Nebraska. Christ’s cross was from dogwood. And,” she indicates hand-thrown stoneware jars, “I have a little gal that makes these ceramics. The last month, we’ve used two dozen.
“For pets who are to be buried, we always suggest, ‘If you have a toy, bring it and we’ll put it in the casket.’ With cremations, I’m not allowed to cremate anything but the little pet. The Air Pollution Control Board forbids your burning anything other than the body. But if you won’t tell the board,” Matthews grins, “I will admit, I do always put a flower in.”
A miniature poodle who died at home had been brought, wrapped in its blanket, to the pet cemetery earlier this morning. Its owner requested an open casket service. “The grave is being opened now by one of my grounds boys. The poodle is under refrigeration. Tomorrow I will lay it out on the table. As with humans when they die, everything eliminates. So I will clean the poodle up. Then I will brush it a bit, close its little eyes, lay it in its casket. [A redwood casket with a white satin lining and pillow had been chosen for the poodle’s interment.] This little pet will look like it is asleep.
“The poodle’s owner will be here at noon tomorrow. I will have the casket open in our chapel. She will see the pet for the last time, and then we will close the casket, nail on its lid. We will take it to graveside and put it down. In humans, you don’t see that casket go into the ground. But you do here.” She glances out through a window that looks onto the cemetery lawns.
Most clients, she says, customarily go into the chapel for a moment with the pet. Few hold formal services. “It’s usually just family. But there was a gal that had a minister friend come out and perform a service. It was a Great Dane. She had some chairs around. She had a number of people.”
Only once in a great while will a client request that a pet be embalmed. “It really isn’t necessary. I bury normally from one to three days after death. If a client insists on embalming, I have an embalmer who comes in and does it. Personally, I feel, ‘Why charge someone for something that isn’t necessary?’ All the embalming does is just prolong the body from going back to its liquid factor.”
Sorrento Valley’s smallest plots are twelve inches by twelve inches. These plots are usually purchased to hold either a pet’s cremated remains or the body of a small bird. (In all plot sizes, the casket is covered to at least approximately twenty-two inches below ground level.) For this smallest plot, the cost at Sorrento Valley is one hundred dollars. This includes the cost for plot, for the plot opening and closing, and a satin-lined redwood coffin. In the next size up, an eighteen inch plot large enough for a cat, the cost would be approximately $185. For a twenty-four-inch plot and satin-lined redwood casket, the charge would be about $210. “If,” says Matthews, “the client wants a twenty-four-inch, sealed fiberglass casket, with the sealed fiberglass which is the same as in your Corvette car, and with the same lining as in a human casket, the cost is $305.” The largest standard plot, forty-eight inches, would be adequate for a large German shepherd. For dogs like the Great Dane or St. Bernard, the cemetery sometimes must custom build the casket. Pet cemetery prices, notes Matthews, are like those in human cemeteries in that it is the client’s choice of casket that will increase or keep down the cost of burial.
The telephone rings. Matthews answers, speaks soothingly for several minutes, then says goodbye. The caller, she says, is a person whose pet has been cremated. “She said, ‘I can’t handle it. It will be another two weeks before I can come and get the pet.’”
Even after ten years, Matthews still cries with her clients — particularly when the dead pet is a poodle. “I’m really pretty good with other breeds. But I tend to break down with breeds that I’ve had. I will break down with a Doberman, because I lost one a year ago.” But, yes, she says, “It’s the most difficult for me with poodles. I’ve raised them for so long. I can just say, ‘Poodle,’ and tears come to my eyes.
“A couple who had a little poodle came in.” Her blue eyes moisten and her voice chokes. She reaches toward the Kleenex box. “See, I’m going to cry.”
For a moment, the only sound in the office is the murmur from a sleeping poodle, then the roar of a jet taking off from Miramar. Matthews wipes at tears that have wet her cheeks. “It touched me so, I can hardly tell you the story. The poodle was licking the husband’s arm as the husband made arrangements with me. He said he was going to have the vet put the poodle to sleep and asked me to go, after the euthanasia, to the vet’s and pick the poodle up. I said I would.
“But I couldn’t see why this couple would put the little darling poodle to sleep. But the gentleman — the husband — said, ‘He has lost his dignity. And he’s not well. His kidneys have gone. He’s not housebroken anymore. The doctor doesn’t have any other treatment for him. So it’s just going to be a matter of time before he will go into pain. And so I’d rather, to save his dignity, put him down now.’” Matthews, her face hidden by Kleenex, sobs.
When she regains her composure, she tells another story. “There was a young fellow, probably in his early twenties, and he was crying all the way in the door. He had with him his little American Eskimo, and it was so cute. He said, ‘I’ve arranged with the doctor to have my dog put to sleep so I will need to pick a burial site and bury my pet.’ I asked why the little pet had to be put to sleep, and then I looked down at the pet, and he had a cancerous growth on his face.
“I said, ‘Oh, let’s go out and look. What do you want?’ Because we usually ask, when a pet owner chooses a site — it’s a very simple question — ‘Do you wish shade or sun?’ And with so many pets, the dog likes the sun or it would prefer being in the shade. And it’s usually fifty-fifty. Half want shade. Half want sun.
“The young fellow said, ‘Shade.’ So we walked out into the shady side of the cemetery, and I said, ‘There’s two plots here. Which one do you think you want? One is next to FIFI and one is next to Pepper.’
“The little dog slipped away, then, from the master, and went and lay down on one of the two graves, lay down on his side just as if he were already in his casket, underneath the grass.” Matthews dries her cheeks and sniffles.
She stands, brushes a blonde strand away from her forehead, and straightens the beige shirt tucked into her brown slacks. “I nearly forgot, I’ve got one last cremation to do today. Come on out back.” She leads the way across the office, through a small kitchen, to the yard where the crematory stands. Its smokestack reaches more than twenty feet in the air.
“We do only individual cremations. We do not do any mass cremations. People are always asking me, ‘How can I be sure I am going to get my pet back?’ I say, ‘We only do them individually. We are here for thirty-three years. Your cremains — those are the cremated remains — and the entire amount of your pet is returned to you. We don’t do it any other way, and for thirty-three years, we haven’t done it any other way,’”
She strides toward a large, brown plastic bag that rests on a scale in the shed. She bends over to examine a swatch of masking tape that runs the length of the bag. “Jimbo,” she read out loud from the tape. “’Shetland sheepdog, Weight, twenty-five pounds.’ That’s him. We make no mistakes. No mix ups.
“Once we were scheduled to cremate a silver poodle. We’d picked it up earlier that day at the clinic. We opened up the sack and discovered we had a white poodle. We called back. The vet checked his freezer and found they’d given us the wrong pet. We drove back, returned the white poodle, picked up the silver.
“People are terrified of mix-ups. We had one man who went so far as to slip a penny down the throat of his dog before he brought him in for cremation. I found it in the cremains — a little copper wafer. When he came back the next day, my office manager handed him the box containing his dog’s cremains and then gave him the bill for the service. ‘Just one minute. Before I pay I need to check something,’ he said and opened the box. My office manager said, ‘Let me help you, I think I know what you’re looking for.’ She pulled out the bag and sorted through the cremains until she found the penny. When the man saw it, he gave a big smile and said, ‘It is my dog! It is my dog!’”
Digging her nails into the brown plastic, she rips it apart, revealing Jimbo, around whose neck a faded blue bow tie is knotted. Matthews unfastens the worn cloth, folds it, and sets it aside. “I’ll place this in the box along with the baggie which will hold Jimbo’s cremains.”
She grabs Jimbo’s front and rear paws and gently slides the dog onto a low aluminum trolley. His tongue, pink and limp, dangles from his muzzle. Grasping the trolley’s rope handles, Matthews pulls the trolley toward the crematory. She unlatches, then opens the crematory’s black iron circular door. Residual heat radiates outward from still-warm fire brick.
“I like my chamber because it’s very easy to get a pet in and out. The largest pet we can do on this chamber would be one weighing 250 pounds — a small pony, a goat, a sheep. We have a special permit, which allows us to cremate fifty pounds an hour.”
Perspiration dewing her forehead, Matthews hoists the dog into the crematory, placing him gently onto the hearth floor. She looks down at him and says softly, “Goodbye.” She turns and explains. “You always say ‘Goodbye.’ Always.”
She steps back, closes the door, and brings her weight down firmly against the latch. At the side of the crematory, she flips a switch. A muffled roar fills the late afternoon silence. A faint odor of burning hair fills the yard.
“We’ll come back,” says Matthews, “and check on him in half an hour.”
Seated again in the office, she explains that her basic cremation fee is forty dollars for a pet whose weight does not exceed thirty pounds. “And that’s very reasonable to cremate a pet and return its cremains to you or scatter them here for you.
“If the pet weighs thirty-one pounds, the charge is what we call ‘ten dollars more than the weight.’ (Pet weight determines cremation time.) In other words, for a thirty-one-pound pet, it’s forty-one dollars. We don’t like to specifically say this, because it makes the pet cemetery sound like a butcher shop, and we are not a butcher shop.”
The cremains she stresses, are not an ash. “They’re like sand. They’re not blowing in the wind.
“You can take the cremains home or have them scattered here around our scatter tree, at no additional charge. Seventy-five percent take them home. If they have a pussycat and they have a rose garden that little pussy cat was always sleeping in, they may scatter them in the rose garden. Or, they make take them up in the mountains where they used to run with the dog. One couple has an avocado ranch, and the dog always loved it out there. They’re going to take the ashes to the ranch. They will scatter them and turn them into the soil. Back to the earth.
“Once in awhile, Oriental people will ask that a tiny bag of rice be placed with the cremains. There was one Japanese fellow that had his dog here, and when he finished he said, ‘These cremated remains I’d like placed in three packages.’ We said, ‘You don’t want them all in one urn?’ He said, ‘No, I want them in three urns.’ He purchased the three urns. One he sent back to where the dog was born in Japan. The other he buried with us. The third he took home. That was his tradition.”
Back at the crematory, Matthews opens the door a few inches and peers inside. A solid branch of yellow flame sways above Jimbo’s glowing rib cage, now an incandescent white and orange. “He’ll take at least another thirty minutes, and then we have to let him cool. So let’s go back into my office and I’ll show you what we have when we’re all done.”
On Matthews’ desk are plastic bags packed with gray and white gravel-sized bone chips. Each bag is tagged with name of pet and owner.
“You can see,” she says, lifting one of the bags, “that the cremains are a slightly different color. This was a little calico cat.” She shows a plastic bag in which some bone chips appear to be a slightly darker gray. “This was a West Highland terrier.” The chips in the bag containing the terrier remains are white. “This was a white cat. A cat is finer boned.” Matthews points then to the largest of the bags. “Here’s a big one — an Australian shepherd. You will see the bigger dog is, the larger the amount of cremated remains.
“Occasionally, the cremains will reveal an animal’s cause of death. A dog who was a rock eater, for instance, may die without anyone knowing the cause of death. The x-ray can’t see the rocks. But after the dog is cremated, you will see, with its cremains, a little pile of rocks.
“Most cremains, as you see here, are a white or grayish. I had a good friend who had a chocolate brown poodle. She used to say to me, ‘That poodle is so brown, it’s brown to its bone.’ And do you know what color its bone structure was when the cremains came out? They were brown. Brown, brown cremains.”
The heat has begun to wane. Matthews walks outside onto the cool grass, wading through the poodles circling her heels. She stops, lights a cigarette, and, her blue eyes squinting through the smoke, surveys the length and breadth of the Sorrento Valley Pet Cemetery.
“We’re like a park here. Dogs are being restricted from so many parks. You can’t have a dog here, you can’t have a dog there. Bah. I will say this, ‘This is their — the pets’ — park.’”
She waves a hand toward hand-painted signs that swing from white picket posts. “The cemetery itself is divided into alphabetically designated sections: A is for Adoration; B, Benediction; C, Celestial; D, Devotion; E is Eternity, and so on through the letter G.
“There is a family in the Benediction section that has five dogs buried here. He visits the cemetery on Saturday or Sunday, brings along the two other dogs for whom he has reserved plots. He and the dogs play ball on the lawn. On a Saturday and Sunday, I often count twenty-five to thirty cars per weekend that visit. People have come here, met other people, and have made lifelong friends, because they have something in common, their love for animals.
“Over there’s our scatter tree. People can, if they wish, strew the pet’s ashes here at no extra charge,” she says, pointing to an oak tree whose branches shade a low brick wall surrounding its base. Around the tree, several inches deep, is coarse, gray ash — cremains of cats and dogs. On the tree’s trunk, tacked into bark by grieving pet owners, are colored pictures of saints. Bronze markers engraved with pets’ names have been drilled into the brick.
“And over there is our mausoleum — those are the full bodies, in sealed caskets, in what we call ‘above-ground burials.’ One is my dearest friend’s poodle, an international champion — Consentino’s Silver Dollar. My apricot and her silver competed against each other I think,” says Matthews, chuckling. “Silver Dollar beat me.”
Many champions are buried at Sorrento Valley. “But there are just as many of the loving companion, or mixed-breed dog or cat as there are purebreds.
“Next to the mausoleum is our columbarium. There, we keep cremains, in urns inside niches, like they have for humans. Another friend of mine has her international champion — Silver Heidi —inside the columbarium. Heidi’s cremains will be taken home when my friend passes and be put into my friend’s casket.”
Matthews walks slowly across the lawn. The poodles dart ahead, tussle on the headstones and markers, some among the latter settled deep into the lawn, engraved with names, with poems and simple statements of love and the hope for reunification:
‘John-John, there is a bridge of memories/From earth to heaven above/It keeps our dear ones near us/It is the bridge that we call love.’
‘Princess, sleep in peace little girl/You are never alone/We all love you and are with you in spirit/God is nigh and pinky the pie is nearby/Pinky the pie you are all there was and all there ever will be/Your very own mummy.’
“We have ‘Kitty Haven’ — that section is just for cats. Most of the time, the cats and dogs are buried together. They don’t fight after they have gone.
“Winter, we slow down here,” says Matthews, herself slowing somewhat, speaking quietly. “It’s fortunate that we can. We — my office manager and I — catch up on paperwork. After Thanksgiving, we get ready for Christmas. We have artificial trees, and we hand trim them. We make wreaths out of styrofoam with little animals on them and fresh greenery, and we make the pet’s name with a streamer on it. Last year, we decorated twenty-five trees and seventy wreaths. A week before Christmas, we put out the trees and wreaths on the graves. A lot of people bring decorations.
“This,” she gestures across the lawns, “is like fairyland that time of year. One couple, for the past seven years, has brought out a three-foot decorated tree, for their Little Babydoll Martinez. It’s very unfortunate. They’re such a sweet couple. They’ve never had another dog. They’ve never been able to replace her.
“If you lose a pet, people who are unsympathetic may say, ‘Go get another one.’ It’s not to get another one. There is a grieving time. Some of our clients, immediately, the same day, do go get another pet. Some people, by the time I see them the following month, will have a new pet. Some people, like Baby Doll’s owners, do not have a new pet, ever again.
“I always say, ‘Wait a minute, what we forget is, you think they are going to live as long as we do.’ I never thought my poodle Noah would die. I thought he was going to live as long as I did. And when he passed away, I said, ‘Well, God intends for us to have more than one pet. So if a dog or cat lives fifteen years of a human lifetime, we can, maybe, have two or three pets. That’s why there are so many.’”
A middle-aged couple has arrived and parked their brown Mercedes on the gravel lot. The wife holds a potted red geranium. She and her husband proceed along a narrow cement walkway to a far corner of the cemetery. He bends down and places the plant next to a granite marker. He brushes blades of dead grass off the marker’s face, then rises and squares his shoulders. His wife shifts toward him. They stand together, stare down at the plot.
“We spent a lot of good times with that little guy. We called him Jad — that’s for Jewish American Dog. We’ve been here four or five times since he died earlier this year. We sure miss him,” he says. His wife has folded her arms and stares at the horizon.
Matthews crosses back across the lawn and in passing places her hand on his shoulder. “You know,” she says, “you’re always welcome here. You should come on a Saturday or Sunday. The place is packed, a darling little Oriental couple come quite often.”
The pixieish Stella, daughter of Matthews’ champion Noah, and her four cohorts are making larger and larger circles as they race through the grass. Matthews watches them in rapt affection.
The brown Mercedes leaves. The pet cemetery lies in full shadow.
Do animals have souls?
“I believe in reincarnation. I believe that our pets are our pets, and when we reincarnate, they will reincarnate. I feel that one of my pets is reincarnated from my world champion Noah. He plays with the same rubber piggy Noah did, he’s the only one who will return the piggy, and if I call him ‘Noah,’ he comes.”
She calls. He comes.
“Did you see that?” she says over her shoulder as she moves to the office door where she stands, arms akimbo, and takes one last look.
“Some things don’t end. This won’t. California state law makes it impossible to move a single pet without a special court order. No developer is ever going to come in here and turn this place into condominiums! People must understand that. This is not a short-term business. This will be here after I’m gone. After my son is gone. A pet cemetery is forever.”