Are They Your Cat’s Ashes?

by Sylvia Ann

You mercy-killed him on a Thursday.

‘Call us next Wednesday.’ the vet nurse tells you. ‘It takes five or six days.’

Wednesday arrives, with no word. Eleven days later – the following Monday – a man with a blandiloquent voice answers the phone at the crematorium. ‘Uh…what’s the name again?’ he inquires, with a tincture of unease. He puts down the phone and returns in several minutes. ‘Sorry for the delay. We’ve fallen behind. We’ll return him to the clinic tomorrow.’

At last you have him back. Or have you? Are the ashes are his?

Cremation of animals

Left photo by Elisa, Right by Michael (who watched the whole process of cremation to ensure his cats were genuinely, individually cremated). Center photo: unknown photographer (sorry).

Surely they are. The staff had explained the procedure to you months ago, describing their two retorts: one for communal incineration, the other in which each tagged animal lay in its own space1 or in a container.

Which doesn’t address the readiness of people, when they have a reason, to do to others what others wish they wouldn’t.

Where there is a chance of avoiding detection, is it so rare it deserves to be gracefully overlooked if employees whose work can be unpleasant seek ways to make it less so? Is it wrong if they’re wearied by the pressure of deadlines or by the premonition that something may have been botched or overlooked? If there’s no one to see them, do they deserve to be pilloried for taking shortcuts now and then?

Self-respect is the belief that nobody’s found us out yet. [Mark Twain]

Wool-pulling. Self-serving ploys. Law bending and breaking. Whether or not we deplore such misconduct, or indulge in it ourselves, the world can be rife with shenanigans. Or – if that unsettles your outlook – unwitting mistakes. Are they few and far between? No. Are they ubiquitous? No. Are they under more than one hedgerow? You decide.

  • Cronyism
  • Bribery
  • Pococurante indolence
  • Marital infidelity
  • Raunchy humor where life hangs in the balance (without insisting on attributions, think ‘operating room’)
  • Slack-lipped addictions
  • Congenital befuddlement

– the whole enchilada is common as gnats or rare as four-leaf clovers, depending on your bias.

To nudge this along another inch or two:

  • Students sometimes cheat on examinations.2 3
  • Recently, a hundred Air Force officers in charge of deploying nuclear warheads cheated on theirs.4
  • Studies have shown a decline in productivity dating from the day the workplace welcomed the Internet.5
  • Investigative reporters are warning consumers of toxins in ‘organic’ produce.6
  • Palace domestics and political insiders reliably churn out best-selling ‘tell-alls.’7
  • Tempted by lucre, veterinarians abandon their oath not to harm animals.
  • A semi-relevant fact of death that can happen in a hospital: years before its legality in a few states and countries, an axillary needle granted the wish of terminal patients begging to die, an act of compassion that could have landed their M.D.s in a cell with Dr. Kervorkian.8
  • The helping professions discuss their patients’ private lives (hopefully, without naming names). Beginning at least in the 19th century, patients have furnished the grist for their analysts’ treatises and books.

Mortuaries land in the headlines. Sometimes. Not often.9 10 11 12

Closest to home, the mushrooming multi-million dollar companion animal death industry, not to be outdone, has splashed its way into the headlines. Sometimes. Not often.13 14 15

Human ingenuity in doing or not doing what eases the daily grind, pumps a dash of frolic into this Vale of Tears, feathers the nest, snaps in two or bends the law into a pretzel may argue the wisdom of sharpening your awareness of things that can happen through guile or disrespect. Or simple human error.

There’s every chance they’re your fur-child’s ashes; the funeral industry likely takes enormous precautions in upholding its integrity. Yet the thought may simmer on your back burner that hope and faith are flimsy substitutes for knowledge.

To spur your misgivings:

  • Remember a book you read by the psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, who describes the bliss of a necrophile on a funeral home staff, who – late at night – siphons with a soda straw and sips urine from the corpses?
  • Another downer for people who pity animals: visit a public market someday, pretend you’re at a baseball game and watch the fishmongers entertain the crowds by lobbing and catching dead salmon. Everyone applauds.
  • A finishing touch? ‘Afghani polo,’ in which the horsemen batter the remains, usually the severed head, of a butchered calf or goat.16

Funeral directors are immensely reassuring. Their words enfold you in velvet. It’s part of their training. Which raises the question: is it a good thing to believe what we are told?

Belief can be exhilarating, sometimes perilously so.17 Unnerving.18Relaxing.19 A 40-proof kicker compared to a skeptic’s watery brew. Though he might have enjoyed the peace of mind that passeth understanding if he hadn’t been cursed with a fidgety intelligence, Thomas Huxley avoided reassurances with nothing more to offer than their ‘likability.’20

Is any of this significant? It is to parents who want their fur child back. He’s left you. He’s entwined in your heart. And you twist in the wind to think of his ashes dumped in a landfill, or scattered in some rain-lashed North 40 because of budgetary constraints. Mistaken identity. In-your-face antics.

If you could bear up under the sorrow of being there (though Shaw wasn’t sad21), you’d know the ashes were your fur child’s. So far from resenting your Hovercraft presence as an intrusion, reputable providers would have every reason to welcome you or – at the least – courteously assent to your witnessing the process.

A second less reliable safeguard? Laxity of conduct could blow the lid sky-high. If the operation was family-owned and the ovens stoked at odd hours, you might not stand a chance: some crematoria burn the bodies overnight. But if it had staff on a payroll, what management-owners would place themselves under the thumb of former, loose-cannon, disgruntled employees who’d seen and done things that would catapult the clientele into frenzies of wrath, reducing the phony ‘Haven of Peace’ to a bulldozer bedlam, its perps – hats askew – running for their lives?

A worse-case scenario, of course. The industry, whether for people or animals, would invite disaster if it were less than scrupulously careful in how it runs its business. If you run into delays, though, in getting back your fur child, you may want to be present another time, either for yourself, or for family and friends immobilized by grief.

The key concept? If you fall down a well, hordes of strangers will scramble to your rescue. Once they’ve hauled you out, however, do not expect them to tour your ‘inner landscape.’ Unless it already matters to them, the hallmark of your maturity is your stoic acceptance that strangers – be they ever so complaisant – haven’t a trace of interest in what matters to you.

Sylvia Ann


  1. The term individual cremation is well understood within the pet bereavement industry but it is a term that is largely abused. Many so-called pet crematoria will try to avoid being pinned to the term “individual” by using other descriptions such as “return of ashes service,” “cremation in numbered trays,” or even “special” or “private” cremation. If you see this, you should suspect that the pets are being cremated together. There may be some kind of separation, but since cremation is a volatile process [emphasis added], nobody could guarantee the ashes could not be mixed. Unfortunately, even if a cremation is called individual, it may still be carried out in this manner. If you are happy with a system like this, then well and good, but many people receive this type of service when they are expecting their pets to be individually cremated. This is wrong.’ Association of Private Pet Cemeteries and Crematoria — Questions: ‘How do I know my pets will be cremated on their own, and will I get the correct ashes?

  2. Academic Cheating Fact Sheet – Stanford University

  3. News Flash…Harvard Students Cheat Too|

  4. Air Force Fires 9 Officers Over Scandal Over Cheating on Proficiency

  5. Internet and Productivity in Workplace – Wikipedia

  6. Even organic foods not free of environmental toxins. Vancouver Sun

  7. One that out-Greeks a Greek tragedy: The Politician: An Insider’s Account of John Edward’s Pursuit of the Presidency and the Scandal That Brought Him Down, by Andrew Young.

  8. The House of God, by Samuel Shem (pseudonym of Stephen Bergman), a near-autobiographical novel.

  9. 10th Anniversary of Bodies Discovered at Tri-State Crematory

  10. Funeral director Benjamin Siar gets more prison time…

  11. Police: ‘Creepy’ embalmer sold gold teeth from corpses – U.S. News

  12. Parents of Teen Found on Gym Mat Sue Funeral Home – ABC News

  13. ‘…some crematoria advertise individual cremations, when in fact the animals are put on separate trays, which can result in the ashes from different animals becoming mixed.’[Emphasis added.] Facing Prison, the pet crematorium boss who gave dog owners fake…

  14. ‘That was not her pet. It was a scoop of whatever happened to be in the crematorium at the time.’ Pet Lawsuit Rises from the Ashes, Chicago Tribune

  15. Freakonomics: The Troubled Cremation of Steve the Cat

  16. Afghan Horsemen Play Buzkashi: a Kind of Polo – The Telegraph

  17. The Authoritarian Personality, Theodore Adorno, et al.

  18. In his The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce portrays the fears of hell that darkened his childhood.

  19. ‘…God is just an invention of lazy minds.’ Lawrence Krauss (A two-dimensional putdown.)

  20. Thomas Huxley’s Letter on the Death of his Son.

  21. She Would Have Enjoyed It – George Bernard Shaw – Classic

Facebook Discussion


Are They Your Cat’s Ashes? — 9 Comments

  1. Sylvia thank you for writing on this very important subject which touches us all, your deep and beautiful words do baffle me at times as you well know, but I admire your style very much. I think your writing is the most eloquent I have ever read. I could never write as you do, I am just a simple soul.
    We can never know for sure that anyone we pay for their services will do the job we have asked them to do properly, we just have to trust that they will. Michael you watched your cat being put into the oven, then you left returning to collect her ashes later, but you don’t know for 100% certain her ashes hadn’t been mixed up with others before you returned. Did you see them take the ashes out of the oven? If not then you did trust them in the end that they actually were yours.
    I know from my vets days that everyone thinks their cat is special, I think our cats are! I was even offered money to ensure someone’s pet was treated as special, I refused of course because I DID treat each pet as special. All I’m saying is we can’t trust anyone 100%, there are bad apples in every barrel and I’ve met a few who you wouldn’t think would ever cheat, but if we start doubting every one we’d go insane. Nothing in this life is certain, nor in death.
    I know my sister cares for every ‘client’ and their bereaved families as if they were her own loved ones, but I doubt that everyone working in funeralcare is like her.
    What we need to remember is that it doesn’t affect our late person or pet at all, it only affects us, they have left the worries of this world behind, they are free!
    Your cats are free Sylvia as are all our lost loved cats, one day we will be free too.
    I personally feel it’s wrong to trap the ashes of another living being in an urn, I want my ashes to blow free in the breeze when my turn comes, to join the earth and renew in beautiful plants or flowers or a tree.
    But of course it’s only my own opinion, I’m not saying I’m right, after death it’s only for those left behind to do as they feel will give them comfort.

  2. Oh what a sad subject, something I usually avoid thinking about because of past and future sorrow. When we lived in our own home we used to bury our animals, I remember my dad burying our Alsatian many years ago in the early 70’s and crying all the time he did it. After he died the job of undertaker fell to Ruth and me and over the years we buried our beloved cats, crying all the time, a horrible, horrible task. The last cat we buried was Felix, my ginger soul-mate, my first husband in fact, an awful Sunday evening 1st June 1997, it was horrendous and I remember getting down on my knees and digging the last bit with my hands, just to make sure it was deep enough and wide enough to let him rest comfortably in his woolly shroud. I never want to do that again. And then we were more or less forced to move not much more than a couple of years later. To protect the living cats from dangerous neighbours we had to abandon the dead members of our family. Since then we have had our deceased cats cremated, asked and paid for them to be cremated individually and their ashes scattered on a little plot of land that is earmarked for August deaths, they are all scattered on the same plot even though they didn’t all die in August, but their free spirits all set off from the same starting point, the August plot. Neither Ruth nor I are believers in storing the cremated remains of loved ones, neither human nor feline, we believe they should be set free to blow wherever the wind takes them. We’ve never had cause to doubt that the pet crem we chose to use does anything other than what we have asked ands paid them to do, I don’t think they have done anything short of an excellent job but if they have I prefer not to know. My experience of human funeral services makes me believe that what is promised is done, I know that decency and honesty are important in the funeral industry, there are those who’s services fall short but they are the exception rather than the rule. I think the same applies to pet crematoriums.

  3. From the experience of both my cats going. I choose to bury them. One was buried out on one of the farm vets farm which over looks a sea area out in the countryside. Cassy is buried out at my parents home in a special area. Havent been out there since shes been gone. will try and be brave and visit her sometime soon. I would always choose to bury as in the rituial that helps with grief. I still think of her so much. i know its only been a little while but it feels like forever. It helps with jasmin but i still miss her dearly. I cried over jasmin the other day just missing cassy so much. i know things will get easier just got to take it one day at a time 🙂

    • Sorry to hear that you still feel very sad about the loss of your cats. I know exactly how you feel by the way. It’s completely normal. You make a good point about burial giving a person the chance to grieve because there is a place to go to where you can be with your cat again even though he or she is dead. I don’t know what is the best: cremation or burial. They both have advantages. As you know, I keep my cat’s ashes in an urn in the living room. That has comforted me for years.

      • Yea i just never had it done. I think they charge about 50.00 for it to be done. Maybe in the future it be a good idea but just never thought it before. yea Its hard saying goodbyes for our forever friends no matter how long they have been with us.

  4. I think I got most of your article, but I had a little hard time following sometimes.
    I’ve never had a cat cremated but can understand why there would be a concern whether the ashes were what they should be.
    I’m a believer in the “dust to dust” aspect and giving back to the planet.
    But, for myself, cremation is the only option unless someone would be willing to bury me in a cardboard box and not the steel crap of today so I can just dissolve into the earth.

      • No buria;s here.
        Long, long ago I selected a beautiful area deep in the woods where I felt that no building growth or industrialization would happen for many, many years.
        That’s where I lay my domesticated and semi-ferals to rest.

        The colonies are different. Most ferals just disappear. The few that don’t, I sometimes just find or they’re in the process of dying. I, usually, pick up my dying ones wrapped in a blanket and take home with me, regardless of whether they have any fight in them or not. But, they are all buried in their home, ie, their colony area.

  5. You seem to be saying that we can trust the animal crematoriums to individually cremate if they say they will do it because of the inbuilt safeguards. I don’t believe that. The fact that a disgruntled employee may become a whistleblower has not stopped people and organisations in the past from misbehaving.

    I certainly would not trust an animal crematorium to individually cremate my cat on my request without me being present and watching the process. This is what I did. I know that it sounds grisly and unpleasant but I watched my cat being placed in the oven and the oven door shut and the fire started.

    Then I came back and collected her ashes. I now have them in the wooden urn that you see in the picture on this page. The ashes are with those of my other cat whose name was Missie.

    My experience tells me that we cannot trust people with such an important task especially when there is profit involved because profit tends to undermine integrity. And when it comes to having one’s cat’s ashes on one’s mantelpiece we have to make sure that they really are the ashes of our cat because belief that they are is not enough.

    You make some very nice points and I enjoyed reading your article but actually it is not really an article. It is an essay, but for me, being brutally honest, your writing style interferes with your message. You seem to be more interested in the way you say things than the message that you intend to convey, which dilutes the message because it gets lost amongst the forest of fancy words.

    I hope that you do not mind me saying that. Nonetheless, I thank you very much for submitting your essay for publication on this website.

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