Werner and his partner Jim Hering were heartbroken, so they turned to Rabbi Sally Olins.
“Normally when you lose an animal you don’t get any closure. There’s no funeral, there’s generally not a burial. Some people cremate the dog and keep the ashes. Some don’t do anything. What she did, she allowed us an opportunity to say goodbye and an opportunity to say goodbye with some of our friends and ... friends of Zach’s,” said Werner.
Olins provided a memorial service for Zach at their home, complete with a eulogy, a personalized memorial booklet that included photos, prayers and inspiring readings. A soloist from the synagogue even showed up. And his ashes were spread at all his favorite spots.
That was in 2011 before she retired this May from Temple Isaiah. Now with much more time on her hands, Olins has launched in earnest her “Pets at Rest” service providing grief counseling and memorials for “cherished friends.”
As a pet lover who has lost her own pets before, Olins said she knows what a painful experience it can be.
When she was full time at Temple Isaiah, she often had members seek her out to talk about their pet loss and grief.
“It’s like losing a family member. You have people that don’t know any better. They say ‘Oh get over it’ and ‘It’s only a dog’ but to someone who is living alone, that dog or cat gives unconditional love. Probably more so than a living relative and it’s a horrible loss and I have found that if you don’t do some kind of grief counseling or do a service with a eulogy, they can’t go on,” she said.
Olins’ non-denominational services range in price from $360 to $550 and can include everything from grief counseling and personalized memorial booklets to a remembrance marker and yearly anniversary reminder. They can also be as elaborate or as simple as desired.
When a pet has died, most owners opt for cremation, which in the Coachella Valley is often done by Wiefels Funeral Homes, one of just a few pet crematories in the desert area.
Maggie McMillan, manager at Wiefels Funeral Homes and Pet Cremation in Palm Springs said they started the pet portion of their business within the past 10 years.
Across the country the pet funeral business has dramatically increased. According to a 2012 Bloomberg Businessweek report, there were about 700 pet “aftercare” facilities compared to less than a handful a decade before.
And when it comes to providing for pets, or ensuring their afterlife is memorialized, price is often not a problem. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spent approximately $61.4 billion in total on their pets in 2011. Even during the recession when people curbed expenses, spending on pets stayed constant.
McMillan thinks Olins’ service will come in handy for those folks that seek comfort and want to do more than just cremate their pets.
“Especially with her training and relationship in the community, she’ll be really good at it. She is obviously a big animal lover,” she said. “A lot of times now people are not having kids, their having pets instead ... and that loss is just as real.”
About three years ago, Weifels began to reach out to pet families that had their pet cremated, and inviting them to the funeral home’s annual remembrance ceremony held around Christmas. At times there were more pet families in attendance than human families, she noted.
“They really like to have a place they can come back to,” said McMillan.
When Olins does a pet memorial service, she will first sit with the family and get to know their pet. She’ll ask for stories and pictures so she can write a eulogy and create a keepsake booklet with readings and prayers. Then during the actual memorial service, she will ask family members to tell their favorite stories aloud as well.
“You let them say everything they need to say. And they will feel so much better,” she said. “One of the things that I’ve learned from grief counseling is people have to cry.”
Some people, though, are embarrassed by their love and devotion for their pets, Olins noticed. She wants to be there for them and tell them it’s OK to grieve and it’s OK to want to say goodbye.
Toward the end, Zach wouldn’t eat much. The cancer had spread to his brain and the only thing he liked to eat his last month was challah french toast and ribeye steak prepared on the grill. His parents, of course, obliged.
Werner appreciated Olins’ compassion during such a tough time and thinks others might too.
“I would encourage people to open their minds to treat this member of their family like a real member of the family and allow themselves the moment to say goodbye,” Werner said.
Rabbi Sally Olins is now offering grief counseling and non-denominational memorial services for people who have lost their pets.
For information call her at (818)388-8867