RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Americans spend more than $11 billion a year on funerals, and the industry is growing. Funeral directors are creating some of that growth by expanding their client base.
Rene Gutel reports from member station KJZZ in Phoenix.
RENE GUTEL: The funerals at Fairwinds Memorial Center in Scottsdale, Arizona are usually small and quiet. The chaplain is a slender, soft-spoken woman named Donna Ray Yuridic(ph). On a recent weeknight, Yuridic is officiating a service in one of the centers viewing rooms. A few feet away there's a marble urn resting on a table.
Ms. DONNA RAY YURIDIC (Chaplain): We gather here together to honor the beloved memory of Venus. She was a much-loved member of the Crittenden(ph) family and she will be missed greatly.
GUTEL: Venus's long-time friend and caretaker, Kelly Crittenden, gives the eulogy.
Ms. KELLY CRITTENDEN: She was a piece of work. She was like Ethyl Merman, you know? She was lavish. She was loud and she was bossy. And she's a good girl. So I'll miss her a lot.
GUTEL: If you haven't guessed by now, Venus wasn't human, but a dog - a black Labrador retriever.
Fairwinds is a funeral home exclusively for animals, and Donna Ray Yuridic is a pet chaplain. It's all part of a new trend of full-blown pet funerals.
Bob Fells is with the International Cemetery Cremation and Funeral Association, a trade group for directors of human funerals. He says funeral directors are responding to a need that wasn't met by the industry in the past.
Mr. BOB FELLS (International Cemetery Cremation and Funeral Association): Some funeral homes didn't know what to do. They would say, well, why don't you come after hours. We're not holding any services and you can come through the back door, you know. But after a while that didn't work and people said, no, we need to show proper respect for - these people, their grief is genuine and so we've got to treat them in a genuine manner.
GUTEL: Fells says more human funeral homes are extending services to pets and that the country's first pet-only funeral home opened three years ago. Today there are at least a dozen and one entrepreneur in Carmel, Indiana is planning to franchise.
In Scottsdale, Fairwinds has been open only 11 months, and manager Elizabeth Vaughan says they've been amazed at the range of animals they've performed services for.
Ms. ELIZABETH VAUGHAN (Fairwinds Pet Memorial Center): We've had a monkey. We've had an African gray parrot just recently. And we've had a mule. It was one of our first customers, people coming in looking for an urn for their mule. And this was a pack animal that worked at the Grand Canyon, was well-loved. It surprised us. So we've learned to be ready for just about everything.
GUTEL: Fairwinds offers pretty much any service a traditional funeral home would. They'll retrieve the body and do what they call a final grooming. The entire package, called the safe journey, costs $550.
Venus's owner, Kelly Crittenden, says when she told her friends she was having a funeral for her dog, some of them laughed.
Ms. CRITTENDEN: But I consider her my child and, you know, if a human had a two-legged child that died, you'd want to honor their life. And so I think it's the right thing to do.
GUTEL: This is a hot topic right now among funeral directors. Trade publications have devoted cover stories to the new pet funeral industry and it's debated in workshops at conventions.
Bob Fells, with the funeral directors trade group, says they are still trying to figure out how to make it all work.
Mr. FELLS: One never, in honoring the loss of the pet, one never wants to trivialize the funeral of a human being. An example would be, you don't want to go into a funeral to go to a visitation of the late Mr. Smith and you go into the wrong room and there's a funeral for a dog, you know. You say, oops, you know. That doesn't happen and I don't think it ever will happen, but we never want to blur that distinction.
GUTEL: Fells says a lot of people have been caught by surprise because the funeral business is an industry that doesn't see change very often.
For NPR News, I'm Rene Gutel in Phoenix.
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