RICHMOND, VA — With nothing in commonwealth law to stop the executor of her will, the final request of a Virginia woman was honored and her healthy shih tzu mix, Emma, was euthanized so she and the dog could be laid to rest together.
Such requests aren’t unheard of as pets increasingly occupy places on par with human members of a family, but most states forbid human-pet burials. At least part of the woman’s instructions in her will wasn’t illegal. The law in Virginia treats animals as property, so people can have pets put down if they want, regardless of the reason.
Moral and ethical objections are another thing. The staff at Chesterfield Animal Shelter, where Emma was taken on March 8 after her owner died, found the request egregious and on multiple occasions tried to talk the executor of the will out of putting the dog down, news station WWBT reported.
They argued they could easily find a new home for Emma. Euthanizing a healthy dog was cruel and inhumane, they said.
But, intent on following the dead woman’s explicit instructions, representatives of her estate returned on March 22 and “redeemed the dog,” then took her to a local veterinarian’s office to be euthanized, Carrie Jones, the manager of Chesterfield Animal Shelter, told WWBT.
After Emma died, her remains were taken to a pet cremation center in Richmond and her ashes were placed in an urn to be buried with her human companion.
Veterinarians generally frown on the practice of euthanizing healthy animals. Dr. Kenny Lucas, a veterinarian at the Shady Grove Animal Clinic, told WWBT the practice is inconsistent with the oath he and other vets have taken.
“Whenever we’re faced with a euthanasia situation, it’s a very emotional situation — and beyond everything we talk about — that we need to do ethically, and we’ve taken an oath to do,” he said. “Also it’s something we take home too. It weighs on us as professionals.”
In Virginia, interring humans and pets in the same casket or urn is illegal, unless the burial takes place at a private or family-owned cemetery. Virginia law, amended in 2014, provides for pet and human burials if:
“It’s not legal to put a dog’s cremated remains — or any animal — in a casket and bury them,” Larry Spiaggi, the president of the Virginia Funeral Directors Association and a funeral home owner, told WWBT.
Spiaggi told WWBT outlet he finds abhorrent the idea of killing an animal so it can be buried with its human owner.
“I am licensed by the state of Virginia, so I have a license on the line with the health professionals board,” he said. “So I cannot do it.”
States Change Laws To Reflect Pets’ Growing Status
Lawmakers in a growing number of states are amending state laws to allow people and their beloved pets to be laid to rest together.
A 2016 law allows pet-human burials in New York. It applies only to not-for-profit cemeteries, not those run by religious associations, and people need to get written permission first.
“For many New Yorkers, their pets are members of the family,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said when he signed the bill into law. “This legislation will roll back this unnecessary regulation and give cemeteries the option to honor the last wishes of pet lovers across New York.”
Pennsylvania has a long-standing law that allows cemeteries to have three sections: one for humans, one for pets and a combined section for both.
In New Jersey, human-pet burials are a bit more complicated, according to the Advance Local. The practice is illegal, but the Garden State does allow people to be buried with their pets in pet cemeteries. Several women and their pets have been buried at Hamilton Pet Meadow Memorial Park and Crematory in Mercer County, according to the report.
“The laws say that once a human is cremated, that’s final disposition,” Debra Bjorling, the owner of pet cemetery, told the news outlet after the New York law was passed. “A family can scatter a loved one’s remains in a garden, throw them off a mountain or shoot them into space. What they do with the cremains after that is up to them.”
And while the practice remains against the law in most states, some, like Florida, don’t expressly forbid pet-human burials in graveyards.
A 2016 bill to allow human-pet burials in Louisiana was sidelined in committee amid objections from funeral home directors, not because they opposed the concept, but because it created confusion and onerous record keeping.
But the trend is growing. Colleen Ellis, of the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that funeral directors “will tell you ‘not a day goes by when I don’t put an urn of an animal into the casket.’
“So, while it’s been going on for a very long time, the trend is becoming more recognized where people are getting permission to do it.”
The advocacy group Green Pet-Burial Society is pushing for ecologically friendly “whole-family” cemeteries nationwide. In an email to National Public Radio contributor Barbara King, the project’s founder, Eric Greene, wrote:
“Conservation whole-family cemeteries bring together two concepts and practices, whole-family cemeteries and conservation burial grounds, into a singular experience that is beautiful in its simplicity, and exceedingly comforting to the bereaved. What is key is that the pet remains aren’t buried as property or ‘grave goods’ but as family members and this relationship is recognized and honored.”
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