Tom Rakoczy and his wife, Penny, weren’t able to have children. But in their 40 years of marriage, they have had 11 dogs, mostly rescues, of all kinds of breeds. When they die, they want to be with them.
“It was either adopting some human babies or adopting some doggie babies, and we chose the dogs,” said Tom Rakoczy, a retired police officer. “Our dogs are our family. We’re all created by God. And there’s no reason that we cannot be together at our final resting place.”
There is one reason: In Virginia, the code for cemeteries specifies only human remains. One lawmaker hopes to change that.
State Del. Israel O’Quinn, a young Republican lawmaker from Grayson in the southwestern corner of the state, has submitted a bill in the General Assembly this year that would, under certain circumstances, allow pets and their owners to lie in peace together.
The idea came from Farris Funeral Service of Abdingdon, a third-generation business and the owners of the plot that Rakoczy hopes will be his - and his dogs’ - final resting place.
“My family’s been in the funeral business since 1918, and we’ve been in the cemetery business since 1984,” said Kelly Farris, co-owner with his brother. In recent years, people started coming to them about the possibility of being buried with their pets. They’ve set aside some land for the “Garden of Loyalty,” and there’s a waiting list of 25. But “we found that there was some legal definition issues that we had to deal with.”
Because of distaste in some corners to the idea of burying people with pets, O’Quinn emphasized that no animals would be buried next to anyone who does not want them.
His bill makes clear that any human-pet burials would be in separate but adjacent plots and that they must be segregated from traditional gravesites.
“Some people have an extreme aversion to animals, and others have a strong affection for them,” he said. “There are some people who do not want pets or any furry animal buried near them, and that is their right.”
Currently, the relevant code section reads: “ ‘Cemetery’ means any land or structure used or intended to be used for the interment of human remains.” O’Quinn’s proposal would allow them to be joined by their “companion animals.”
Virginia is not alone in this problem.
“Most states are either silent on the issue or they have very specific laws that they don’t allow it,” said Poul Lemasters, a funeral industry lawyer who consults on pet burial.
There’s already a clandestine tradition of cremated pet urns tucked into coffins, Lemasters said: “Why not just go ahead and allow it, and you can kind of have better control of it.”
And while professionals in the “death care” industry are loath to speak too frankly of financial matters, pet burials could also help a struggling industry.
According to the Cremation Association of North America, 42 percent of Americans who died in 2011 were cremated, a far more frugal option than a traditional burial. The number has been growing steadily for decades; in 1996, it was just 22 percent.
“A lot of cemeteries are struggling right now,” Lemasters said. “This is an opportunity.”
New York recently allowed human ashes to be buried in pet cemeteries, and it’s legal in New Jersey as well. But ask where in the country a person can be buried whole with his or her pet, and only one place is named: Hillcrest Memorial Park in Pennsylvania. There is also a cemetery outside Baltimore that performs pet and human burials - Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens. But the pets are buried in separate plots, at their owners’ feet, in a section closed off from traditional burials.
“Nobody could find any reason not to allow it, other than people’s perception,” general manager Amy Shimp said.
In an era when dogs visit doggie spas, when their medical care includes acupuncture and when their owners dress them in custom-tailored jackets, it’s not surprising that some people want to stay with their pets in the afterlife.
The trend of pet burials has grown over the past decade, industry executives say. To be buried together is the next logical step.
When her own dog, Mico, died 11 years ago, Coleen Ellis wanted careful treatment.
She wanted her grief to be recognized as such; studies find that the death of a pet can be at least as traumatic as the death of a human companion. She wanted an object she could take home to memorialize Mico. She wanted respect.
“I didn’t want to put her in a bag and put her in the freezer,” Ellis said. “She wasn’t garbage.”
But the funeral home where Ellis held a ceremony for Mico required her to come in the back door and leave the lights off in the chapel, so as not to distract from families mourning a “real” death.
The experience prompted her to start her own business in her home city of Indianapolis - it was the first pet-only funeral home in the country.
Pet owners started contacting her for resources but also for simple validation that wanting a public pet burial was not frivolous or pathetic or strange. Now Ellis is also co-chair of the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance.
“What happens with our society is people choose to have an opinion on how you should grieve or mourn,” she said. “People like myself give pet parents permission.”
Not everyone is ready to accept.
“Burial is a sacred service,” said state Sen. Kenneth Alexander, D-Norfolk, who runs the funeral business his father began. “We prohibit all kinds of activities with animals; we don’t want to open the door or relax those.”
Before the bill reaches Alexander in the Senate, it will need to pass the House of Delegates, where it sits before a subcommittee.
“I hope the ones that decide on this, they’re animal people,” Rakoczy said. “If they are, they’ll understand.”