The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

 Promo for Blog

If there’s a death in your family and you choose to have your loved one cremated, wouldn’t you expect that the remains that are returned to you belong specifically to your beloved? Of course you would!

Would you expect the same if the dearly departed happens to be the family pet? I suspect the answer is still yes. But in the fast-growing pet-cremation business, how do you know that the remains you’re getting back are indeed from your pet?

That’s the question we ask in our latest podcast, “The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player in the post. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

According to government statistics, there are well over 200 million pets in America, not counting pet fish. (Why government statistics don’t include fish — we don’t know; maybe that’s an episode for another day.) And we spend a lot of money on these pets, about $61 billion a year. One area that is growing very fast: pet “aftercare.” The International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories (IAPCC) tells us that ten years ago, only a handful of places specialized in pet aftercare. Today, there are more than 700 pet funeral homes, crematories and cemeteries. (Or, as Bloomberg Businessweek puts it, “There’s Never Been a Better Time to Be a Dead Pet.”) With so much money being spent, and with death being so fraught with emotion and mystery, might there be some misbehavior going on?  

Our story began a few months ago, when we got an email from a listener named Jon Remkus:

REMKUS: “Hello. This is kind of a long shot and a bit out of left field, but I was curious to see if there would be any interest in trying to prove [...] that the cremated remains from certain pet crematories are unlikely to be those of a particular pet. Is there any interest?”

Yes, we were interested!

Remkus, it turns out, himself runs a pet cemetery and crematory near Chicago. So he plainly has a dog (sorry) in this fight. When he says that “the cremated remains from certain pet cemeteries are unlikely to be those of a particular pet,” he is talking about his rival crematories. How did he come to this conclusion?

As producer Katherine Wells explains in the podcast, Remkus was suspicious that his rivals could charge so little for an “individual” or “partitioned” cremation, so he hired a private investigator to carry out some tests. They got hold of some fake cats, made from rabbit fur, and stuffed them with hamburger meat. The presumption was that if a crematory was truly carrying out a partitioned cremation, Remkus should have gotten back almost no remains from these boneless cats, since it is primarily bone ash that is left after a cremation. But can you guess what he says he got back? Yes, lots of bone ash. In other words, Remkus was pretty sure that what he got back wasn’t what he sent in. (Only one of these rival crematories would speak to us; they denied any wrong-doing.)

_MG_2357_EDITED

Raw materials for the Freakonomics pet-cremation test: fake cats and hamburger meat. (Photo: Michael Katzif / WNYC)

Because we had no way of independently verifying Remkus’s tests, we decided to run our own experiments. We chose three pet crematories from the New York area and followed the Remkus protocol: we procured the fake cats, stripped the rabbit fur off them and stuffed the fur with hamburger meat, deposited the fake boneless cat in a plastic bag, preserved it in the freezer until the crematories sent their pick-up guy, and paid for a cremation of a series of three “cats” who all came to be called Stevie.

So what happened? Did the crematories call and say, What the heck are you guys up to? or, Ahem, sorry to inform you but there was a problem with your dead cat — he seems to have burned down to almost nothing, and we’re afraid there aren’t many remains to return? Or did they duly return a set of cat-size cremains that belonged, quite possibly, to someone else’s cat (or dog, or deer, or gerbil)?

Burger meat was stuffed into fake "cats" made of rabbit fur, then sent to 3 New York City area crematoriums. (Photos: Michael Katzif / WNYC)

Stuffing raw hamburger into the fake “cats,” which were made from rabbit fur.  (Photo: Michael Katzif / WNYC)

You’ll find out in the podcast, natch. Suffice it to say that the result did lead us to visit Nicholas Petraco and John Reffner, a pair of forensic scientists at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to analyze the remains that were returned to us. Long story short: with each boneless Stevie, it seems we got back a bunch of bone ash that didn’t come from Stevie.

We should be careful not to assume that these crematories are doing something wrong. Maybe something happened in the burn chamber that would explain why we got back all that bone ash from animals that didn’t have any bone. Or maybe the hamburger meat we used had an inordinately large amount of ground bone in it – not likely but, if you read a paper from the Annals of Diagnostic Pathology called “Fast Food Hamburgers: What Are We Really Eating?,” you’ll see that bone and lots of other cow parts can end up in ground chuck. Or maybe not…

We followed up with the three pet crematories to try to understand what may have happened. One of them, Pet Cremation of New York, declined to comment on the record. The second, Pet Crematory Agency, wouldn’t go on tape but they did send us a written statement, which noted that the form we signed when we turned in Stevie said that he was indeed a cat, and that they would need further proof that the Stevie we sent wasn’t a cat.

The third, Hartsdale, also sent a written statement, 16 pages long, which vigorously denied any improper handling of pet remains. It said that Hartsdale “adheres to strictly monitored and enforced procedures and safeguards throughout the cremation process to insure the respectful treatment of pet remains from intake through return.” Furthermore, Hartsdale says, the contents of our bag were placed in an individual stainless steel tray, put in the crematory furnace, and upon completion of the cremation process, the cremains “consisting solely of the skeletal remains of ‘Stevie’, were removed and processed by pulverizing the bones.” Hartsale also included a copy of a form signed by an employee stating that the ashes are Stevie’s ashes and that this employee takes personal responsibility for the cremation.

Hartsdale later sent us an addendum to the original statement, saying that “active commingling of cremated remains will occur when you perform a cremation with more than one pet in the chamber.” They attached a newsletter from the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance, which supported this.

Stephen Dubner holding a fake cat. (Photos: Michael Katzif / WNYC)

Stephen Dubner with one of the three fake kitties that would be send to three New York crematories for the test. (Photo: Michael Katzif / WNYC)

FWIW, we have shared our findings with the New York State Attorney General’s Office. If we find out that they pursue the issue, we’ll let you know.

In the podcast, you’ll hear all this and much, much more, including a mock trial that was recently held at an International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association conference in Florida. It was designed to ask what might happen if a case of cremation fraud ever came to trial. How would a jury react? What kind of price would they put on a pet? And who would have to pay it? The jurors had been recruited from Craigslist:

JUDGE: On the issue of infliction of emotional distress, what do you find?

JUROR: Defendant Oceanside Crematory we do find liable, and award damages in the amount of $150,000.

JUDGE: On the issue of negligence, what do you find?

JUROR: Oceanside Crematory we do find liable and award a damage of $350,000.

JUDGE: And finally, on the issue of punitive damages, what do you find?

JUROR: Oceanside Crematory we do find liable and award a damage of $3 million in punitive damages against that defendant.

The cremated remains were mailed back to us by the 3 crematoriums.

The ashy remains of Stevie the Cat were mailed back to us by the crematory. But were the remains really from Stevie?

Wow! A (mock) reward of $3.5 million, just for giving back the wrong pet ashes? Is the attachment to our furry friends really that valuable?

Apparently so. Poul Lemasters is a lawyer and funeral director who consults with the deathcare industry; he put on the mock trial. “In the court system,” he told us, “pets have typically always been considered property. However, over the years, courts have started to recognize that pets are people too.”

Audio Transcript

[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound, “Pistol Alien” (from Let’s Cool One)]

 

Stephen J. Dubner: Hey podcast listeners: you are about to hear a new episode of Freakonomics Radio, called “The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat.” I think you’ll like it. But before we get to that… maybe you feel like sending us some money? Here’s the thing: we’ve been making this podcast for almost four years – about 150 episodes – and we put it out for free, every week. But it costs quite a bit to make the show -- and, this being a public-radio podcast, we’re doing the public-radio thing and asking for your donations so that we can keep it free. Now, does it make any sense for you to pay for something that you don’t have to, that you can keep getting for free? Probably not, from a purely rational perspective. But hey, if we’ve learned anything together over these past few years, it’s that we all do irrational things once and awhile. So if you’re feeling a bit irrational right now, a bit frisky, a bit freaky – please go to Freakonomics.com and hit that “donate” button. There’s some nice swag available –  we’ve a Freakonomics Radio coffee mug, a t-shirt, signed books, even a chance to win a trip to NYC to hang out with me and the Freakonomics Radio crew for the day! Thanks a million. And now: “The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat.”

 

[MUSIC: Heavy G and the Boogaloo Communicators, “Theme From ‘The Green Scarab’” (from Makin’ It Happen)]

 

DUBNER: A few months back, we got an email from a fellow named Jon Remkus in Willowbrook, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. He wrote: “Hello, This is kind of a long shot and a bit out of left field, but I was curious to see if there would be any interest in trying to prove that the cremated remains from certain pet crematories are unlikely to be those of a particular pet.” Is there any interest? Hey John, does a kitty cat say meow?

 

Jon REMKUS: Well I can give you the tour of the grounds...

 

DUBNER: It turns out that Jon Remkus himself is in the pet cremation business, and he also runs the Hinsdale Animal Cemetery. He took us on a tour.

 

JON REMKUS: What you’re looking at is the oldest part of the cemetery, directly in front of us. We don’t have any famous dogs in particular, but a whole lot of love out there.

 

DUBNER: The cemetery is a family business. Along with Jon, there’s his brother...

 

David REMKUS: I’m David Remkus...

 

DUBNER: His father...

 

Bill REMKUS: ...my name is Bill Remkus...

 

DUBNER: And his mom...

 

Nancy REMKUS: My name is Nancy Remkus...

 

JON REMKUS: So I’ll take you around a couple of my favorite epitaphs. There’s a Yoda here...

 

DUBNER: The cemetery has been in the family since 1950, when Jon Remkus’s grandparents bought it.

 

JON REMKUS: The epitaph says ‘May the force be with you, sweet pup. 1978-2000.’ Although, my inner nerd’s gonna show. Empire Strikes Back didn’t come out until 1980, and that’s when Yoda made his debut, and this pet was born in 1978, so maybe I’m nerding out, but I’d like to know the story behind that.

 

DUBNER: There are thousands of cats and dogs buried here, along with bunny rabbits, birds, hamsters, horses, a 3-foot shark -- and about 30 human beings, too.

 

JON REMKUS: This is a place where people come to rest alongside their pets. And Rosindo is one example. His stone says, ‘We will never forget you. You will always be in our thoughts and in our hearts. We love you.’

 

DUBNER: Some of the animals buried here are in corpse form, and some have been cremated. Which brings us back to the reason that Jon Remkus wrote to us. He thinks there is something fishy about the pet cremation industry. He thinks that some of his competitors are not playing by the rules. Now, a few years ago Remkus hired a private investigator to try to prove it. So you might call him a motivated whistleblower - motivated, that is, by casting guilt on his rivals, and in the process of making his own business look better. Maybe so, but does that necessarily mean that Jon Remkus is wrong?

 

[THEME]

 

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

 

[MUSIC: Heavy G and The Boogaloo Communicators, “Wee-Lee”]

 

DUBNER: So Jon Remkus, who runs a pet crematory outside of Chicago, wrote to say that he suspects his competitors of fraud, and that he hired a P.I. to try to prove it. Producer Katherine Wells takes it from here.

 

Katherine WELLS: I met up with Jon Remkus and his father, Bill, to talk about this investigation. Here’s Bill.

 

BILL REMKUS: Cremation is mystery to most people. And with it being a mystery of how cremation should be performed or what it’s all about, it’s easy to take advantage of people because they don’t understand it.

 

[MUSIC: Greg Ruby Quartet, “Zephyr” (from Look Both Ways)]

 

WELLS: To understand the investigation, you need to understand how cremation works. Say you’ve just had your dog put down. You are at the vet with the body. You’re probably distraught. The vet will ask you want you want to do: do you want to take him home? She might suggest that you cremate the pet. And she might offer to take care of the process for you. If you don’t want the ashes back, the vet will send off the dog for something called a group cremation, where a bunch of pets are cremated together. If you do want the ashes back though, she’ll suggest you do a private cremation. Jon Remkus showed us how this process works.

 

[door opening]

 

JON REMKUS: When we do a private cremation, it’s just one pet at a time, and the client receives back all of that pet’s cremated remains and only that pet’s cremated remains.

 

WELLS: The cremation machine is a big silver metal block with a little door in front.

 

JON REMKUS: And when I press the button for the door to come up, the door goes up, and then we see that there’s a single pet inside the cremation chamber floor, and then there’s a jet of fire that comes down from the ceiling and makes contact with those cremated remains in order for the cremation process to complete.

 

WELLS: When the burn is finished, they’ll sweep out the remains, which are mostly bone...

 

[sweeping sounds...door closing]

 

WELLS: ...grind them up, and pour them in an urn.

 

[pouring sounds]

 

JON REMKUS: And that is about it.

 

WELLS: Pretty simple, right? If you don't want the ashes back, go with the group cremation. If you do, go with private. Well, it’s not actually that simple because there is yet another option, you might be offered, it’s an in-between, not-quite-private option. How it’s done is several animals are cremated together in one machine, but they’re separated with bricks or on metal trays. So theoretically, you should still get most of your pet’s ashes back. This third option is usually called “segregated” or “partitioned,” cremation, but the terms can get confusing: you might also hear it called “semi-private,” or even “individual.”

 

It is usually cheaper than a totally private cremation, but there’s a problem. What “private” or “individual” or “partitioned” cremation really means depends on who you’re talking to. And the lower the prices go, the murkier the definitions get. So when Jon Remkus saw that some of his competitors were offering very low prices for some of these services, he got suspicious.

 

JON REMKUS: Generally just the ridiculousness kept increasing in the market. It got sillier and sillier how low the prices would go.

 

[MUSIC: Stephen Flinn, “Jewels In My Teeth” (from Architect of Adversity)]

 

WELLS: Remkus charges about $180 for a private cremation of a small animal. But what he started to see was that his competitors were offering much lower prices, and doing things like giving away free TVs to vets who funnelled business to them. Remkus says he just couldn’t imagine how his competitors could be making a profit off of these services at those prices. So he decided to do something about it. He hired a private investigator and they devised an experiment:

 

JON REMKUS: So what we did is we came up with a tracking compound that would allow us to chemically test for its presence after the cremation process is through.

 

WELLS: Remkus had on hand eight dead stray cats that had been passed along to him for disposal. This gets a little gory, but what he did is he had a vet implant each dead animal with this tracking material -- titanium dioxide. Now, cremation machines get very, very hot. Like 1,600 degrees hot. But titanium dioxide’s melting point is way above that, it is 3,350 degrees Fahrenheit, so this material would make it through the the burn and still show up in the ashes afterwards. So after this material was implanted, the private investigator took the dead animals to several of the competitors with the very low prices. He asked each one of them to do a “partitioned” cremation, the in between, sort of private, option.  

 

JON REMKUS: We got the ashes back and you know they all look like cremated remains. And in fact they were cremated remains upon having them analyzed.

 

WELLS: So far, so good. But when a lab analyzed the cremains for the tracking material, three of the eight samples weren’t right.

 

JON REMKUS: We discovered that there was such an insignificant amount of the tracking material in a number of these samples that at best you were given a scoop of a larger group cremation.

 

[MUSIC: Airbus, “Deep In A Dream” (from Ghosts)]

 

WELLS: When you send in your cat to be cremated, how do you know that the scoops you get back are full of Fluffy? What if they were Max the dog? Or a gerbil, or a rat? Or all of those mixed together and topped off with some parakeet? The truth is, short of doing a test like this, there’s really no way for you to tell how any cremation happens, unless you go and watch it yourself.

 

Now, Jon Remkus felt like the tracking material experiment was pretty solid proof that his competitors were not doing cremation in the way they advertised. But he wanted to be really sure. So he did a second test.

 

JON REMKUS: So what we did is we had the investigators procure two stuffed animal cats. And...

 

WELLS: Where do you get a stuffed animal cat by the way?

 

JON REMKUS: There was a place online that had realistic stuffed animal cats that were actually manufactured using rabbit fur.

 

WELLS: They were so soft that you couldn’t tell the difference.

 

JON REMKUS: And what we had the investigators do is stuff them with some hamburger meat and some Crisco just to approximate the weight and feel of a deceased cat and then had them freeze the stuffed cat up.

 

WELLS: That last part may sound strange, but it’s not that unusual for people to freeze an animal until they can take it for cremation. So off these frozen fake cats went for another partitioned cremation. Now, it’s important to reinforce here that bone is really the only part of the body that survives the heat of cremation. Everything else burns away. So with these fake boneless cats, there would be almost nothing left.

JON REMKUS: So we sent two through directly to this particular competitor. And in both instances we got back bone ash in the amount of what you would expect for a pet of that size.

 

WELLS: Okay, so you sent the fake cats through, with no bone in them, and you got bone back.

 

JON REMKUS: Yeah, not just some bone, exactly what you’d expect for a pet of that weight.

 

WELLS: So what does that suggest? Complete the circle for me.

 

JON REMKUS: Well that suggests that this company is just taking a scoop of a group cremation and doling it out based on the weight of the animal that comes in. So to simplify it, a big Labrador might be three scoops, a cat might be one scoop. And that’s what we believe was happening in these instances.

 

[MUSIC: Blindfold, “Rotation”]

 

WELLS: Why would a crematory do this? Well, it saves time, labor, energy, money -- and it means more profit. But I think it’s worth pointing out that I can also imagine a much less nefarious way for this to happen. Cremation is a turbulent process - - it’s a huge fire, after all -- and it’s possible that these companies did in fact separate out all of the bodies, but in the process of burning, the remains become mixed. But in the end it doesn’t really matter whether the mixup is intentional or not, because the bottom line is that the pet owner is not getting back what they think they’re getting back: which is only their animal.

 

After Jon Remkus did his experiment, he brought his findings to the Attorney General of Illinois’s Consumer Protection Division. The division reviewed the procedures of one of the competitors, a company called All Paws. No further action was taken. The Remkuses are still convinced that fraud is out there. Here’s Jon and Bill again.

JON REMKUS: It made me more sad than anything that pet owners are being taken advantage of and they don’t even know it.

BILL REMKUS: When you choose cremation services on price, chances are you’re going to get burned. Ninety times out of one hundred, you’re going to get burned.

 

DUBNER: Now, as we noted earlier, for Jon Remkus to claim that his competitors are being dishonest, well, he may not be the most unbiased source in the world. We contacted several of these other crematories. Most of them didn’t return our calls or emails. But one did. He didn’t want to go on tape, but here’s what he told us. He said, “I run an honest business, we’ve been doing this for 40 years. We don’t mix things up.” And he said, “Sure, I’ve heard of that happening, but not here.” And he said, “I’m in the business of helping grieving pet owners, not of pointing fingers or calling my competitors names on the radio, and this story makes Remkus look bad for doing that.” And he said, “I’m not thrilled to hear that this guy brought a cat laced with chemicals to us, and then we burned those chemicals. What if they were combustible? What if somebody got hurt?”

 

So, we don’t have enough information to say who’s right here. But look, people do cheat, just about every day in just about every realm of life. Should we assume that pet cremation would somehow be exempt? Of course not.

 

Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any worthwhile data that would help us definitively answer this question. For now the only “proof” is a homemade investigation, of the hamburger and Crisco variety.

 

[MUSIC: Spencer Garn, “Funky Zapatos”]

 

DUBNER: So, coming up on Freakonomics Radio: we run our own experiment, to see what happens when you send a crematory a cat that has no bones.

 

[stuffing fake cats audio]

 

DUBNER: And, if phony cremation happens with pets, does it happen with people too?

 

LEMASTERS: One of the cases on the human side that really made a change on how everybody handled the human side of cremation was in Noble, Georgia.

 

[UNDERWRITING]

 

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

 

[MUSIC: Vunt Foom, “Beatcutter” (from Sub Valve Release)]

 

DUBNER: According to government statistics, there are well over 200 million pets in America, not counting pet fish. (Why government statistics don’t include fish – we don’t know; maybe that’s an episode for another day.) Now, we spend a lot of money on these pets – about $61 billion a year, which is roughly the size of the U.S. wedding industry. And just wait ‘til pets start getting married! Over the past 20 years, our pet spending has tripled. One area that is growing very, very fast is pet “aftercare.” The International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories tells us that ten years ago, only a handful of places specialized in pet aftercare. Today, there are more than 700 pet funeral homes, crematories and cemeteries. Here’s producer Katherine Wells again.

 

[MUSIC: Heavy G and the Boogaloo Communicators, “Into Somethin’” (from Makin’ It Happen)]

 

WELLS: If you want to find out about the pet cremation industry, and the people in it, a good place to start is the annual conference of the ICCFA. That’s the International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association. This year’s annual conference was held in Tampa, in the springtime. The ICCFA is mostly an organization for funeral directors for humans, but every year, more and more pet funeral professionals come. Coleen Ellis is one of them.

 

ELLIS: I’m a fur mama, so all of my children have fur coats.

 

WELLS: Ellis is the head of the Coleen Ellis, and that means she *loves* pets. She’s not alone.

 

ELLIS: First of all 62 percent of people own a pet. Okay?  Eighty-three percent of the 62 percent refer to themselves as mommy and daddy. Baby boomers have empty-nested and the pets are the new kids. And they want to make sure that when they have those new kids they’re giving them every spoiling right that they would give to any child. The younger folks, the X and the Y’s right now, they are maybe holding off on having kids so they’re test driving with a puppy and a kitty. They’re finding the treats that are organic. They’re finding the little doggie spas that they can do facials at and they can have fun time. They’re finding the doggie daycares where they can go socialize them and they can be fun and good pet parents because they’re taking their child over to play with other children, okay...So the trend of life is going to push the trend of death. And when you honor death you honor life.

 

WELLS: And that means that no expense is spared when pets die, too. Ellis points to a necklace she’s wearing -- it’s a big silver heart with little paw prints on it.

           

ELLIS: I have an urn on around my neck right now. I don’t have cremains in here, what I have is have is the hair and the fur and a little whisker of all the living and deceased animals that I’ve had in my life. And so for me, this is a way that I can honor them. I can keep them with me.

 

WELLS: Urn necklaces seem to be pretty popular -- Ellis wasn’t actually the only person wearing one at the conference. Hers even opened up and had a USB port inside, where she keeps videos of all of her pets. She sent them to me.

 

ELLIS: Everybody sit, Rudy, sit. Crisco, sit. That’s good. Look at my babies! Oh, they are so good! Do you want a treat?

 

[MUSIC: The Mackrosoft, “Angiogenesis” (from Upgrade)]

 

WELLS: So obviously, Ellis is really proud of her animals. And she knows that pet owners like her would be really devastated to find out that the ashes they got back didn’t belong to their animals. And a question that came up at the conference was this: would a pet owner ever be so devastated that they’d sue?

 

LEMASTERS: Pets are a big market, and that means there’s liability.

 

WELLS: This is Poul Lemasters. He was at the ICCFA conference, too. He used to be a funeral director and embalmer, but today he works with human and pet funeral homes on legal issues.

 

LEMASTERS: I always tell people, you can’t expect to make money off of something and not create a liability at the same time. It just doesn’t work that way.

[MUSIC: In The Nursery, “Partnership” (from Hindle Wakes)]

 

WELLS: Lately, Lemasters has been thinking a lot about the legal implications of cremation fraud. And he told me there’s actually a precedent for this pet mess in the human cremation business. It happened in 2002 in the town of Noble, Georgia.

 

NEWSREEL: We discovered one concrete vault stuffed, or packed, with more human remains.

 

NEWSREEL: A large garage-type building was found today filled to the top with decomposing human remains. So far, 92 sets of remains have been recovered and some of these remains date back decades.

 

NEWSREEL: We have found some mummified bodies...

 

LEMASTERS: One of the cases on the human side that really made a change on how everybody handled the human side of cremation was in Noble, Georgia.

 

WELLS: The Tri-State Crematory in Noble had been receiving bodies from funeral homes for years, but an investigation uncovered something awful: the owner had been dumping corpses in the woods and giving other materials, like cement dust, back to the families. In total, more than 300 bodies that were supposed to have been cremated were found.

 

LEMASTERS: So they ended up going after the crematory and also after the funeral homes that were using them. Many things were discovered. They included that a lot of the funeral homes were using this crematory purely because of their price. Because they happened to be the cheapest. They also found out that nobody was inspecting. Nobody was even going to look.

 

WELLS: The case set an important legal precedent. The guy who ran the crematory was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and both he and the funeral homes that used him were fined millions of dollars.

 

After this scandal, states tightened regulations of the human cremation industry. Now there are all sorts of certifications and licenses and permits, emissions standards and specific requirements for proper procedures to identify and keep track of remains. But pet crematories don’t have nearly the same amount of oversight. It varies from state to state, and even from county to county, but in most places, all you need to do to open a pet crematory is fill out an application for a license and get a permit from the EPA. Poul Lemasters thinks the reason there might be less oversight of the pet cremation industry is because there hasn’t really been a high-profile pet cremation lawsuit in the U.S. But what if there was one?

 

JUDGE: All rise! The circuit court of Hillsborough County, Judge Jeremiah Nevill presiding, is now in session. Please be seated and come to order.

 

[gavel]

 

WELLS: At the ICCFA conference this year, Lemasters staged a big mock trial. It was in a hotel ballroom, they set out folding tables in the shape of a courtroom and about 75 people showed up to watch. Lemasters wanted to know what would happen if a case of cremation fraud ever came to trial. How would a jury react? What kind of price would they put on a pet? And who would have to pay it?

 

JUDGE: Alright, let’s begin. Plaintiff’s counsel, with your opening statement.

 

LEMASTERS: Thank you your honor. May it please the court, the actions of the defendants, what you’ll hear today, are horrific and unimaginable.

 

WELLS: That’s Lemasters again, playing the role of the prosecuting attorney. He gives his opening statement and calls the first witness up to the stand.

 

JUDGE: Do you solemnly affirm that the testimony you may give in this matter will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

 

KNAUF: I do.

 

WELLS: This is Roberta Knauf. She’s a counselor at a pet funeral home in Ohio, and she volunteered to play the role of plaintiff.

 

LEMASTERS: Tell us about Molly.

 

KNAUF: Molly was my best friend. She was a wonderful companion and she was very close to my heart.

 

[MUSIC: Sonogram, “Certainly Obscured” (from Cubists)]

 

WELLS: Knauf starts to tell the story of the made-up dog, Molly. She says Molly died from cancer at an old age and was cremated through the vet. Everything seemed fine at first, but a few months after she brought the ashes home, Knauf heard that the crematory owners were being investigated. They had apparently been dumping animals in a field and returning random ashes back to people.

 

KNAUF: The veterinarian clinic called me, and said there had been an investigation. And they told me it wasn’t Molly’s ashes that I had. And that hurt. And even the police investigation said that they weren’t hers.

 

WELLS: Knauf was suing not just the crematory, but the vet, too -- because the vet had outsourced the cremation to the cheapest company and then stuck Knauf with a hefty upcharge -- which, it turns out, is not an uncommon practice. Knauf had no idea.

 

KNAUF: I don’t have Molly. I’ll never have Molly.

 

WELLS: At this point, Knauf starts crying -- real tears. She told me later that her pain was real, because she knows this actually happens to pet owners. The mock jurors, who had been recruited off of Craigslist, were moved.

 

JUDGE: On the issue of infliction of emotional distress, what do you find?

 

JUROR: The defendant Oceanside Crematory we do find liable, and award damages in the amount of $150,000.

 

JUDGE: On the issue of negligence, what do you find?

 

JUROR: Oceanside Crematory we do find liable and award a damage of $350,000.

 

JUDGE: And finally, on the issue of punitive damages, what do you find?

 

JUROR: Oceanside Crematory we do find liable and award a damage of $3 million in punitive damages against that defendant.

 

[trial ambiance]

 

WELLS: This mock jury charged the veterinary clinic with damages, too, for not going out to check on the crematory.

 

[trial ambiance]

 

[MUSIC: Heavy G and the Boogaloo Communicators, “Wantu Wazuri” (from Makin’ It Happen)]

 

WELLS: Lemasters was really excited about this result -- excited because it confirmed his hunch that a jury would be willing to punish fraudulent pet crematories. That they wouldn’t dismiss it as just a dog or a cat. Lemasters and I talked about what could happen after the trial was over. He said that if a real jury ever did the same thing, and there was real money involved, it could completely change how the pet cremation industry works.

 

LEMASTERS: In the court system pets have typically always been considered property. However, over the years, courts have started to recognize that pets are people too and to give them more and more latitude and their owners -- parents -- more latitude to recover damages.

 

DUBNER: That was Katherine Wells reporting for us.

 

Suzie LECHTENBERG: Um, ok, we are here to talk about Stevie, Stevie and Stevie.

 

DUBNER: Did we name them Stevie the cat? They are all called Stevie the cat?

 

LECHTENBERG: Just Stevie.

 

DUBNER: And this is Suzie Lechtenberg. She’s the executive producer of Freakonomics Radio.

 

DUBNER: The cats are named after Levitt or me?

 

LECHTENBERG: Both of you.

 

[MUSIC: Spencer Garn, “Pink Champagne Paradise Machine”]

 

DUBNER: The cats named “Stevie” that she’s talking about – well, we decided to run our own tests at three pet crematories here in New York. We wanted to see what would happen if we did what Jon Remkus told us he did in Illinois – send a fake cat out for cremation. So we bought three fake cats from a store called This Place Is a Zoo. They market the cats as “not very cuddly but great for a display or to replace a missing pet.” We were excited when they arrived – they are very realistic, orange-and-white kitties, curled up asleep, a stiff body covered in real rabbit fur.

 

[stuffing the fake cats ambiance]

 

DUBNER: We stripped the rabbit fur off of the cats, and stuffed each of them with a few pounds of hamburger meat.

 

[stuffing the fake cats ambiance]

 

DUBNER: Then we put these burger-stuffed rabbit fur cat skins in a grocery bag and froze them for a few days, until we could arrange for the three crematories to pick them up. By this point, they didn’t really look much like cats but apparently they were cat-like enough for the three crematories to take them off our hands.

 

[stuffing the fake cats ambiance]

 

DUBNER: And we, of course, are telling a fib – we’re telling them that what we’re giving them is a real dead cat. Now, when you get back cremated remains, whether it’s a pet or a human, it’s composed almost entirely of bone ash. So in this case, we’re sending a cat with no bones – so, theoretically, we shouldn’t get back much ash at all. The fur and the hamburger meat should burn off almost entirely. So we sent off these three cats. Suzie and the other producers handled this part; they kept me in the dark; I had no idea what kind of remains if any we got back. A few weeks later, we sat down to talk.

 

LECHTENBERG: Okay, so, can I ask you first: what do you think happened?

 

DUBNER: What would I predict happened?

 

LECHTENBERG: Yeah.

 

DUBNER: Okay, so we take three cats, we send them into three different pet crematoria….and what do I think happened? Oh, three cats whose bodies are made up of hamburger meat.

 

LECHTENBERG: Stuffed in rabbit fur.

 

DUBNER: Stuffed in rabbit fur… I guess what I hope happened is that each of these three institutions called and said, Suzie, I’m sorry to tell you this but something was strange with Stevie, your cat, and he just burnt to hell and there was nothing left. And we’d love to give you the ashes of your beloved Stevie the cat, but we can’t understand why there aren’t any, and instead we’ll give you maybe a nice plush stuffed animal.

 

LECHTENBERG: Well, why don’t we just see what happened then? Are you ready?

 

[crinkling of bag opening]

 

DUBNER: Please don’t be ashes, please don’t be ashes.

 

[crinkling of bag opening]

 

DUBNER: Alright, the fact that there’s something here is not good. I’m going to open it...well, this is promising, I’m getting happier, can I open… I’ve got to rip this open… It’s a plastic bag…

 

LECHTENBERG: Yeah.

 

DUBNER: Should I not be happy? Oh no. Oh bummer. I thought it was...oh man. It is. This is somebody else’s dead pet right here. Right?

 

LECHTENBERG: Yeah.

 

DUBNER: That is not Stevie.

 

[MUSIC: Tangria Jazz Group, “Breathe Easy” (from Mebane’s Eleven: Tunes for Two)]

 

DUBNER: That first box is from a place called Pet Crematory Agency. We paid for a private cremation -- $460 – which meant that Stevie the cat should have been alone in the chamber. The second box is from Pet Cremation of New York. Again, a private cremation; this one cost $307.

 

DUBNER: Ooh, this one is heavy…

 

[crinkling sounds]

 

DUBNER: And right there, the label on...when I open the box says “Private Cremation,” and it appears to be another bag of animal bones that do not belong to Stevie the cat because Stevie the cat had no bones.

DUBNER: This second bag had way more ash in it, maybe three times as much as the first one. Okay, so that was Stevie 1 and Stevie 2. Stevie No. 3 got what’s called an “individual” cremation, meaning he’s supposed to be alone in a pan but that other animals were also in the chamber, in different pans. Now even so, this one cost more than the others -- $505.74. It was from a place called Hartsdale Crematory.

 

DUBNER: Okay, once again, a tea tin, beautiful floral print, it’s kind of small, there’s some paperwork here and more of the same. More kitty remains. I have to say, these look a little bit… this looks, honestly, this looks like beach sand. There look to be chunks of bone or bone fragment and then ashy stuff, which I guess is other bone. Says “Stevie” on there. So, I know this isn’t my Stevie. This might be somebody else’s Stevie.

 

DUBNER: Okay, so let’s not assume that these crematories are doing something wrong. Maybe something happened in the burn chamber that would explain why we got back all that bone ash from animals that didn’t have any bone. Or maybe the hamburger meat we used had an inordinately large amount of ground bone in it – not likely but, if you read a paper from the Annals of Diagnostic Pathology called “Fast Food Hamburgers: What Are We Really Eating?,” you’ll see that bone and lots of other cow parts can end up in ground chuck. Or maybe not…

 

[John Jay College ambience]

LECHTENBERG: I visited Nick Petraco at his forensics lab at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He teaches chemistry and forensic science there. Petraco used to be a cop. He started his career at the NYPD in 1968. Then he finished his chemistry degree and went on to work in the police lab as a detective. He retired in 1990 and now he runs a forensic science consulting firm. His specialty is trace evidence. He and a colleague, John Reffner, who’s also a professor of forensic science at John Jay, agreed to analyze the cremains for us. We looked at the ashes under a microscope.

 

REFFNER: I pulled some chunks out, in the top of the petri dish that you might want to look at. Oh yeah. That’s it.

 

LECHTENBERG: What do you see?

 

REFFNER: That’s a beautiful… that’s a piece of bone.

 

[microscope]

 

PETRACO: That’s a crystalline structure. Let me take a look, too. This is a little bit of Stevie 1. Looks like bone to me. Bone fragment.

 

REFFNER: This is not residue from what you sent them.

 

LECHTENBERG: So that was their initial reaction, looking at the ash under the microscope. But they hadn’t done their full forensic analysis yet. So they couldn’t say for sure that the remains we got back were indeed bone. But before we get to what they found, I learned that Nick Petraco is a dog lover.

 

DUBNER: Mmmm.

 

LECHTENBERG: He’s had three beagles. Jake, Ralph and Butch.

 

PETRACO: Butch I got as a puppy from one of my professors here when I was coming to college here. And, uh, he lived for 15 years. He had a good life. I cry about him all the time. But he had a good life. He had a big belly like me. He ate good.

 

LECHTENBERG: So that’s why it was a little bit agonizing when he saw this:

 

[sounds of Petraco opening a package]

 

PETRACO: Hartsdale. This where I sent my Ralph. Hartsdale.

 

DUBNER: Oh no.

 

PETRACO: I sent through my vet. I know it was Hartsdale.

 

DUBNER: This is before he looks at the remains from Hartsdale?

 

LECHTENBERG: Yeah.

 

DUBNER: Oh God, I don’t know if I can take hearing this.

 

LECHTENBERG: Yeah. So, clearly, this guy did not want what’s in the Hartsdale package to end up… he did not want us to get duped.

 

[MUSIC: The Willie August Project, “Diamonds in the Darkness” (from With You, In A Moment (Live At The Glacier Fringe))]

 

[phone ringing]

 

LECHTENBERG: After I left John Jay, it took Petraco about a week to do a full forensic work up and tell us exactly what was in our cremains. I called to see what he found out.

 

PETRACO: We found that in each of the three sets of materials from the crematoriums, each set of materials had primarily bone fragments in it. They were burned bone fragments. I verified the elemental composition by finding calcium and phosphorous, which is typically what bone is made out of, calcium phosphate.  

 

LECHTENBERG: How much bone are we talking about?

 

PETRACO: The vast majority of the material was bone debris.

 

LECHTENBERG: Wow.

 

PETRACO: In each case.

 

LECHTENBERG: Wow.

 

DUBNER: Alright, so Suzie, according to these forensic experts, the three bags of pet cremains that we got back were made up almost entirely of bone – which doesn’t seem to make sense, since we sent each of them a boneless cat. In two of the three cases, we paid for a private cremation, so we don’t know where this bone ash came from. And even in the third case, the “individual” cremation, we were still supposed to get back only the remains of our pet.

 

LECHTENBERG: I think we have to assume that these crematories gave us back a scoop of ashes from some other cremated animal.

 

DUBNER: Right, because in our case, there shouldn’t have been any cremains, or at least only a tiny bit. But based on what we’ve learned today, I wouldn’t be all that confident if I were to send in a real pet that the remains I get back are definitely from my pet.

 

LECHTENBERG: I think that’s right. Here’s Nick Petraco again:

 

PETRACO: Basically they are not doing what they say they do. I don’t know if that’s a crime but it’s certainly not morally right because a lot of these pets are very dear to the people that are paying these fees to have it done properly.

 

[MUSIC: Tangria Jazz Group, “Ethan’s Song” (from Mebane’s Eleven: Tunes for Two)]

 

DUBNER: So apparently we got back some ashes from other people’s pets. This may just mean that some crematories don’t do the right thing when they cremate a fake cat.  We called the three New York crematories that we tested, asked them for a response.

 

None of them would go on tape. One crematory, Pet Cremation of New York, declined to comment on the record. The second one, Pet Crematory Agency, did send us something in writing. They noted that the form we signed when we gave them Stevie said we were giving them a cat, and that they needed further proof that the Stevie we sent wasn’t a cat.

 

The third crematory, Hartsdale, also sent us a written statement, 16 pages long. They emphatically denied any allegation that that there was the improper handling of pet remains. They say that Hartsdale “adheres to strictly monitored and enforced procedures and safeguards throughout the cremation process to insure the respectful treatment of pet remains from intake through return.” Hartsdale says the contents of our bag were placed in an individual stainless steel tray, put in the crematory furnace, and upon completion of the cremation process, the cremains “consisting solely of the skeletal remains of “Stevie”, were removed and processed by pulverizing the bones.” They also included a copy of a form signed by an employee saying that the ashes are Stevie’s ashes and said this employee takes personal responsibility for the cremation.

 

Hartsdale later sent us an addendum to its original statement, saying that active commingling of cremated remains will occur when you perform a cremation with more than one pet in the chamber. They attached a newsletter from the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance supporting this.

 

You can read the full statements from Pet Crematory Agency and Hartsdale on our website: Freakonomics dot com. We’ve also shared our findings with the New York State Attorney General’s office… if we learn that they do conduct an investigation, we’ll be sure to let you know… In the meantime, we wound up with three piles of pet cremains – and even though they’re not from our pets, they probably belonged to someone. So we thought we’d take the ashes outdoors and give them a proper sendoff…  

 

[audio of scattering the ashes]

 

DUBNER: Okay, here we go. So long Stevie, or whoever you are.

 

[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound, “Pistol Alien” (from Let’s Cool One)]

 

DUBNER: Hey podcast listeners. Hope you enjoyed this episode. I also hope you’ll consider supporting the Freakonomics Radio podcast by going to our website and making a donation. We love giving away this podcast for free but it does cost money to make. Just look at this pet-cremation episode… We sent Katherine Wells to Florida to cover the mock trial at the International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association conference. That cost a bit more than $1,000. We also did that taping at the pet cemetery outside of Chicago… Then we had to buy those very realistic fake cats, covered in real rabbit fur. $184.70. Then there was the hamburger meat to stuff the cats, plus some rubber gloves and garbage bags – that’s another $48.98. The pet cremation itself, at three crematories, set us back $1,274.40. But the real costs are what it takes to turn out a weekly podcast and a public-radio show. We have a staff of great producers and engineers on salary – they even get health insurance. We pay for the music we use, so that the artists who make it get paid, at least a little bit. We also need to cover the costs of streaming our podcast. Now the good news is that a lot of you listen to the podcast – we do more than 3 million downloads a month. But the more downloads, the more we pay in streaming costs. So last year we paid about $36,000. This year, we hope to pay even more! So, long story short: if you’re so inclined, please go to Freakonomics.com and make a donation. Thank you very much – and we’ll talk to you next week.

 

[CREDITS]

 

 

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  1. Arvin Johansson Arbab says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 7
  2. Robyn says:

    Excellent experiment! Thanks for doing this….opened my eyes on crematorium wars….

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 4
  3. Jennifer Newsom says:

    It’s possible that an employee at these places felt sad at the distress sending back no ashes would cause someone and stole a few ashes from others in order to do what they thought was kind. Or they could have thought they made a terrible mistake and tried to cover it up. In either case there would be hope at least that normally pets are treated respectfully and as advertised.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 65 Thumb down 3
    • synp says:

      OMG, the stupid cat totally disappeared! There’s no ashes.

      Two options:

      (1) Talk to the boss. Have an awkward conversation with the customer. See what we can do

      (2) just take a scoop of ashes from the pets that the owners don’t want back and put that in the can.

      I know which on is (a) easier, (b) gets you in less potential trouble with the boss, and (c) causes less potential trouble with the customer.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 30 Thumb down 2
      • uofoo says:

        An ‘awkward’ conversation with the customer? What would you say?

        1) Sorry to inform you that our services sent your pet into the 4th dimension
        2) There were no bones, are you sure you fed your cat enough calcium?
        3) Was your cat named Houdini?

        I don’t want to have any of these conversations. I would be temped to give them something even if I was ethical on a normal day.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 3
      • Phil says:

        This experiment is a foul trick. You send them something which is not a cat, but tell them it is a cat, which is basically dishonest.

        What can you expect an employee, or even the boss, to do if there are not ashes? The most obvious conclusion it that you screwed up personally. You did something wrong in the cremation.

        Sending back the ashes from some other cremation seems entirely rational.

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 18 Thumb down 15
      • J says:

        I was thinking this throughout the whole podcast! What would of happened if they gave a fake cat to the Remkus place that was doing the investigating in the first place? What would their response be – they would assume they received a real, flesh and blood cat and when there are no remains – what then? Would they try to give some comfort to the pet owners by giving them fake ashes too?

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 2
    • Gregory Pearson says:

      I agree. The original test in which Titanium Dioxide was added to a dead cat was a more realistic test into the crematorium’s actual operating practices. The freakonomics test was more sensational but was really more of a Candid Camera-style “gotcha!” Perhaps it says something about how they deal with an embarrassing screw-up, but it tells you nothing about how often, if ever, they screw up in real life, which is what was supposedly being tested.

      Imagine the poor employee, getting paid minimum wage in a lousy job, who places a bag with what looks like a cat in the oven and then opens up the door to find…nothing! What logical conclusion can he draw? Someone is playing a joke on him? Someone else removed the ashes? He somehow screwed up? Or perhaps that it is the third day and the cat messiah has been resurrected? One can easily see how an employee in such a situation would cover up his presumed mistake. It’s better for him–he doesn’t need to explain an unexplainable result. It’s better for the business–they don’t need to refund the fee.

      And it’s better for the customer– the ashes they were given were indistinguishable from the ashes of their cat, and thus the probability that they would figure out these were the wrong ashes was nil, and there is a high probability that a customer informed that the crematorium could not account for the whereabouts of their beloved pet’s remains would suffer real distress.

      Sorry, guys. You blew it on this one.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 7
      • ami says:

        As an animal lover and a person with MORALS I would hardly feel the way you seem to think is logical. The right thing THE HONEST THING is what everyone would rather know. Weird strange whatever, you should be honest. I suppose you feel if a woman is being cheated on it’s better for her not to know too as it would only upset her and perhaps the family if they have one????? Not all of us feel that way by a long shot.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2
    • John says:

      I would assume these animals are thrown into one big furnace. Not reduced one by one. Then a shovel is used to return a miss-mosh of ashes. You would have to watch the procedure to be sure.

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4
    • ERLW says:

      Sorry. Late to the party.
      I had this exact thought as I was listening. Given the incentives to be dishonest (time, money etc.), I imagine some are… but the experiment that makes the cat disappears doesn’t work for me.
      I can imagine a nice normal crematorium employee freaking out when the cat disappears… and then panicking that the boss will blame and or fire them… so they grab 10% of the ashes from the next 10 dead cats to cover up for their mistake.
      So, instead of catching crematoriums who do this already, this experiment may actually inspire them to start.
      After the cat disappears, what is their incentive to “do the right thing”? They’ll get an angry customer, they’ll lose money (refund), potential negative press. Only the moral incentive to do “what’s right” (which is possibly outweighed by the moral incentive to “not hurt the pet-owner’s feelings”).

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
  4. Pet Loss Care says:

    The same investigation was conducted in British Columbia and of 11 crematoriums tested with these same cats, 8 failed – and 3 of them failed TWICE!!!

    I am a pet crematorium and now I use a new technology called Alkaline Hydrolysis – this is the third best guarantee you get your pet’s ashes back and only your pet – what are the other two absolute best guarantee? Number two – live video stream – Number one? Be there in person to witness.

    There is a link on YouTube that explains this gentle and environmentally friendly option:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxONVGG3vhs

    There are no laws protecting live pets, and there are definitely no laws protecting dead ones. We are about to launch a national campaign addressing this from a different angle. Stay tuned!

    And to all families affected by unscrupulous crematories – my apologies on behalf of our industry…a real shame.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 27 Thumb down 9
    • Pet Loss Care says:

      Would be nice if those giving this post a ‘thumbs down’ would identify and/or say why! Are you a crematorium that has something to hide and thus all this ‘investigative’ stuff is making you nervous? I see nothing wrong with saying how a pet parent can protect themselves against such deception by being a witness, or asking for a video certification. I also see nothing wrong with promoting technology that is environmentally friendly as opposed to fire based cremation that spews toxins in the air on a continual basis.

      Also, the benefits of alkaline hydrolysis is that the pets picked up at the veterinary clinics cannot remain in the garbage bags used by the clinic – they must all be removed from the garbage bags. (yes folks – let’s be upfront and honest here – pets are put in a garbage bag and dropped in a freezer with lots of other pets – we meet the family at the vet clinic and transport their pet in a pet casket back to our center – with dignity, without garbage bags) And please, no comments about removing a pet from a garbage bag is dangerous for the workers in a crematorium! Use gloves and proper attire just like the human funeral directors do when dealing with a body that may have decomposed or been involved in an accident. My center goes a step further and includes a lock of fur with the urn for 2 reasons: to give the family a physical remembrance and to show the family that indeed it is their beloved companion.

      Its an unregulated industry and families are being deceived – the more we talk about this, the sooner we can start effecting change. We should all work together to bring integrity to pet cremation practices and truth in advertising.

      Here is the key issue that no one seems to be recognizing: you are a consumer – you paid for a service (and taxes no doubt) and you were deceived! There are consumer laws protecting you against exactly that – consumer fraud! So whats the difference here – because its a carcass? because it has no value? NO – there is no difference – it is a consumer transaction entered into good faith with a vet and/or crematorium – why aren’t you protected by the consumer protection agency?

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 4
      • Jeff says:

        Pet Loss Care, don’t take it personally, I am sure there is at least some research that shows people act like complete jackasses on the internet where they can be anonymous.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 2
      • Kim says:

        I wasn’t one of the down votes, but I am considering it. Your post uses fear to mislead while advertising your methodology.

        If someone does care about “gentle” disposal of the remains, why is it more gentle to use chemical dissolution in a pressure cooker as opposed to incineration? My guess is actually that you have alkaline hydrolysis because it was easier to get a license for (or not). That’s fine, I have no problem with it. But don’t pretend it is something it isn’t or that it provides some benefit for the pet owner.

        Studies do NOT show emissions problems with modern incinerators; you are again taking advantage of people’s perceptions.

        You lose credibility with your communication methods.

        Provided someone has the space and there is no unusual disease, burial would actually be the most environmentally friendly method.

        Your advocacy of a consumer protection agency also suggests insincerity. Anyone who runs a business knows that regulations like that would increase customer cost and provide no way to determine who is being cremated or how (are you hoping to get an advantage for your methodology with such an agency?)

        In short, you could have addressed the issue without using it to float a fallacy.

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 10 Thumb down 13
      • Pet Loss Care says:

        Kim – my apologies if my posts have led you to believe I have a hidden agenda or that I am advocating one methodology over another. Bottom line with the Freakonomics podcast is the validity of the pet cremation process. There has been reported fraud in the pet aftercare industry from as far back as the 1992 scandal in Long Island NY (http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1992-01-18/news/9201030939_1_pet-cemetery-pet-owners-strausses) – and not only in North America, but around the world. I can give you links to news videos & clips from the UK to the South Pacific.

        As for the pressure cooker comment – this is false. The system I use (which I posted a link to a video explaining the process) is low pressure. Manufactured by Bio Response Solutions in Indiana, they hold the patents on this technology. As for the ‘gentle’ disposal – there is no pretty way to dispose of a dead body: you are either eaten by worms, insects and bacteria in a burial; burned to cremated remains in intense fire or dissolved in a bath of hot water and alkali (not boiling water). I am not using fear to mislead, but rather facts and comparisons. I used a fire based crematorium for 8 years before switching to alkaline hydrolysis.

        As for modern incinerators having no emission problems; burial being best – sorry, but wrong again. It is an ongoing study for governments around the world as to how to address growing concerns with cremation and burial. The Netherlands did a full study on the 4 funeral processes: cremation, burial, cryomation (freeze dried methodology out of Sweden) and alkaline hydrolysis (referred to as Resomation in the report) – The 2 biggest culprits in pollution for our planet is burial and cremation, followed by cryomation. The least damaging and most favorable method is alkaline hydrolysis. Hey – these aren’t my words – these are the findings of this report:
        http://www.tno.nl/downloads/TNO%20report%20Environmental%20impact%20of%20different%20funeral%20technologies.pdf

        Here is an interesting tidbit for you and I am doing this in full disclosure: I represent the manufacturer in Canada and the UK – and so far, many veterinarians are not only embracing this technology, but actually installing this equipment within their own practices – thus assuring their clients that their pet never leaves their care and they assume full responsibility for the aftercare. In the US, vets in California, Colorado, Florida, and Texas are now offering pet aftercare with the Pet400. I applaud veterinarians willing to take on the task of caring for the pet from birth to death.

        And finally on this type of process – families actually get more bone back then with fire based cremation. It is proven – both for pets and funeral homes using alkaline hydrolysis. I also have the facts and reports if you would like them.

        As for advocating for consumer protection? YOU BET!!!! There are no laws protecting living pets, why would we expect laws to protect dead ones? If this transaction, which is an exchange of money between two parties, the family and the vet/cremation provider, for a ‘service as advertised’ and it is found that the service was not done/delivered/processed as advertised, then the consumer needs protection against deceptive and fraudulent practices. Cost of doing business Kim – as you have insurance for your veterinary practice, so should pet crematoriums.

        I will continue to advocate for all pet families using aftercare services – transparency, honesty and integrity is sorely lacking in this industry and change is needed.

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      • Kim says:

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      • Swede says:

        Pet Loss Care,

        very nice that you include a lock of fur. I always admire a company that goes the extra step, you guys seem to go ‘two extra steps’ :)

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  5. Fred says:

    From the podcast:

    “this looks, honestly, this looks like beach sand…”

    That is not unusual at all – in fact it’s the norm for a crematory that does more processing.

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  6. Vivien says:

    Thanks for the podcast. It’s incredibly sad especially since I just lost a cat and had him cremated. Of course, to be certain of your results there would have to be a positive control (ie., some owner agrees to see their pet cremated and a forensic expert confirms that there are no other remains with the deceased pet), but I really hope that the NY Attorney General’s office investigates the industry. What a shame and a dishonor to our pets’ memories.

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  7. Tony Thomas says:

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    • James says:

      If this is in fact the case, what exactly is your problem with it?

      For myself, I would not trust a person who could not make emotional connections to animals to be anything but a user of humans.

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    • LB says:

      I lavish attention on my dog and I’m an obese and unattractive woman with poor social skills. I have few human friends and my dog keeps me company. Ironically, my dog helps me make friends: I chat with my neighbors and with random strangers when I have my dog with me in a place where dogs wouldn’t normally be. I’m a pretty invisible person in general, but having a cute dog makes me visible and turns me into a person instead of a vague lump of bad skin and brown hair.

      My family has had two dogs who died, and buried one in the backyard of our former house and had the other group cremated. We were told that the group ashes were interred at a local pet cemetery; if that’s really the case I could go visit her.

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      • Sunny's Mom says:

        And I lavish attention on my dogs, I’m a single mother of one human child, I’m underweight (bmi of 17.0), fancy myself to be attractive (my boyfriend agrees) and have a very good social life since I am a 22 year old college student.

        I will have my dogs cremated when they die. One is 16 years old and the other is 4.

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  8. carlosmx37 says:

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