The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast
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.)
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)?
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.” Hartsdale 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.
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.
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.”