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

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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.)

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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.” 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.

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

Stephen Dubner with one of the three fake kitties that would be sent 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.”


Arvin Johansson Arbab

http://i.imgur.com/VzH5PDi.jpg

Robyn

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

Jennifer Newsom

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.

synp

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.

uofoo

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.

Pet Loss Care

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.

Pet Loss Care

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?

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Jeff

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.

Fred

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.

Vivien

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.

Tony Thomas

I'd like to see some sort of regression analysis that correlates obsessive per owners (pay large amounts for vet care, shelter, toys, funerals) and other characteristics such as have children, married/unmarried, physical weight, etc. Seems to me that anyone willing to pay for a cat cremation or dog burial must lack real emotional connections with human beings.

James

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.

carlosmx37

please do not make comparisons with human bodies.
I do expect that the remains of Aunt Mary,are really her remains!.

Pradeep

Hi,

I really liked the Freakonomics books and even liked some of the early episodes of Freakonomics radio. Nowadays the radio episodes have very little actual content and a whole lot of time-filling fluff, repetitions and even just blank music without any talk. Please produce shorter episodes with efficient use of time.

Thanks,
Pradeep.

SB

Though I am not a pet owner, I felt sad to hear about the possibility of such things happening. It was also mentioned in the podcast that they found several bodies which were supposed to be cremated, but just piled up somewhere. Leaving aside the pain caused due to this, I am interested in knowing what would be the motivation for cremation houses to collect the bodies, pile them, not do anything with them, and at the same time add cement, random ashes or some stuff to make up for the weight? Is there a darker side to this which I might have missed? What would the cremation houses get out of deceased pet bodies and why will they employ someone to add random stuff ?

Pet Loss Care

Has to do with 'cost' - it is expensive to operate a pet crematorium 'ethically' as explained by Remkus. There are steps to take, procedures to follow and all this has costs associated with running a pet cremation business. The vast majority of vet clinics will pay the 'lowest' possible price to the pet cremation provider, and then turn around and 'mark up' the cost to the family. If the pet cremation provider does not make enough to pay his bills, corners are cut. Because pet parents rely solely on their vets to make the final arrangements for their pets, and many times without asking the right questions, vets will choose the provider that promises ethical services for the lowest wholesale price! Well - to me its like saying I want a Mercedes for the price of a Volkswagon -

When a relative dies at the hospital, do you expect the doctor to make final arrangements? No - you are directed to contact a funeral home and the body is put in the morgue awaiting pickup. If you know your pet is nearing the end - either through old age or sickness - ask your vet if they have a list of available crematoriums for your area - or better yet, Google Pet Cremation - and call the crematoriums directly. Ask the right questions - your intuition will also guide you - for instance: if they say you cannot visit or witness the cremation because of insurance policies, call the next number! Once you find the provider you feel comfortable with, tell your vet that when the time comes, you have already made arrangements for your pet's aftecare. That way your final wishes will be honored.

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Saurabh Minni

Hi Stephen,
I wonder if you know of any study which compares success at startup vs winning a lottery tickets

Baltimark

Here's what my letter would have said after getting "busted",

Dear Jerks.

Occasionally we have a cremation where there are few remains. Perhaps the pet had some degenerative bone disease. Perhaps there is just some variation in the cremations system that day. In an effort to protect the feelings of a grieving owner, we will send the remains of another cremated animal. I guess from now on, we'll just tell these people, 'sorry but your cat evaporated into thin air.' Would that make you happy?

Sincerely,
People who made a mistake because of good intentions.

I don't think I'm going to donate money to support this kind of stuff.

Kim

Veterinarian here. I do use a crematory that we have known for decades, family-operated, has open access and encourages visitors. The problems I have seen with other operators may not be dishonesty as much as operating on thin margins and having a high turnover. At the least, high turnover leads to using employees who are not as trained and respectful as they should be.

I do wonder if you created the problem of getting back something different than you sent by the way you conducted your experiment. Employees may have panicked with no idea why there were no bones in the ashes. I've been a client-minded operator long enough to know you DONT get ahead by lying to your clients. But in the case of seeing "no bones" I think I'd tend to just send back what I got without explanation (and/or investigate what is going on with my equipment!). You would traumatize most people unnecessarily by discussing that their pet's ashes look different. (and while it would be wrong to add bone fragments, that doesn't make it the same as assuming they normally don't cremate separately).

I'm kind of surprised Freakonomics conducted their experiment with such poor methodology. You are going to have to do better if you want my donation ;)

FWIW, I do agree that shopping for cheapest cremation is not a good way to choose a service. Ask your vet why they use the crematory of their choice and/or go visit there.

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Kim

And I want to add: encouraging litigation for pain and suffering in regards to pets is going to cause pet care to increase greatly in cost. I understand and agree that it is REAL pain, but that doesn't make finances the appropriate compensation. Liability insurance in the pet business (including veterinary medicine) is a fraction of that of similar businesses for humans. We will do pet owners no favor by increasing costs to these businesses. (Veterinarians currently have the worst ratio of income to student tuition cost, so no one should think they are going to squeeze much more out of their vets without cost to the clients).

There ARE boards that punish and prosecute veterinary malpractice. I don't know if crematoriums have similar boards, but they should be charged with fraud and theft if they are deceptive. That could be just as effective as a lawsuit (put them out of business) without increasing overall cost.

Of COURSE the guy who offers legal services to the industry wants lawsuits!!!! LOL

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Pet Loss Care

There is one way to avoid litigation against veterinarians - let the family deal with the crematorium directly. Don't be the middle man - doctors are not middle men when it comes to dealing with funeral directors. As long as the family pays the crematorium directly and they did their homework - meaning they asked questions about their process - then only the crematorium would be libel. And that goes for communal cremations as well - how many stories have come out recently where bags containing deceased pets are found tossed in a field or side of the road?

When the PLPA did their mock trial as heard on this podcast - what you do not know is that when the 'jurors' found out the vet made money on the transaction, they also found the vet clinic liable for the same amount.

An article published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) (March 15, 2000) titled: What Veterinarians Should Know About Pet Cemeteries and Crematoriums and written by Melinda E. Hofmann, JD and James F. Wilson, DVM, JD was pretty clear as to how vets could protect themselves against pet cremation lawsuits -

And for those thinking 'bone' can actually disappear when cremated too long - doesn't happen. Some miniscule amount of bone does disintegrate and go up the flue - but 98% remains. I've been cremating for over 9 years and felines/small animals take up less than 2 hours to cremate - and in a very hot retort (what we call hot loading) they can take as little as 20 mins. Ash, cremains and bone fragments are one and the same - if there is ash, there is bone. So when this toy cat was cremated, the only thing that should have been left is a) nothing or b) any metal or screws used in the original assembly.

This link is very well written and totally unbiased - well worth the read!
http://science.howstuffworks.com/cremation.htm

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Tom Cronin

So much for the "without killing a kitten" part of your fund drive

Julien Couvreur

This is really sad. Thanks for independently testing Remkus claims.
I assume that the three companies you tested were the 3 flagged (out of 8) by Remkus. Is that right?

The question now is what are the forces which improve this situation, given that it's so easy to cheat (hard to verify quality of service).
The story is a good illustration of different actors and incentives:
-Competitor (Remkus) suspects foul-play, does investigation, raises flag, advertises findings
-Reporter or journalist do investigative work (for fame, money or satisfaction)
-Customer chooses to watch cremation or ask assurances

There are three more, which deserve additional scrutiny:
-Attorney general office is notified and does not appear to sue or investigate
-Customers informed by competitor's investigation could sue with a claim of fraud
-Government mandates training and certification (as with human cremations)

Each of those three raises a question:
-Why didn't the attorney general's office look into this more? (I suspect the answer is lack of incentives)
-Given that defrauded customers do have incentives to investigate further and sue, why don't they? (maybe it will happen, or maybe there are some legal subtleties I'm missing)
-Why would anyone expect that training and certification would reduce incidence of fraud? Are the suspected companies doing this by mistake (lack of knowledge)? Certification is different than inspection or enforcement.

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LB

Pet crematories tend to be locally owned and run businesses. Remkus ran his investigation in Chicago, and Freakonomics did theirs in New York City. That should make their results even more disappointing.

david quinn

HA HA.... you just destroyed an industry. One that perpetrated fraud, but still HA HA

Andrew Derksen

You guys really needed to use negative and positive controls for your experiment. Since you are working with a "friendly" crematorium who claims to be honest in their business practices, you could probably get data projecting what the average expected bone-ash mass should be for a cat of a particular body mass. I would be surprised to learn if they did not have records on this already, and if they did not, I am sure that they could obtain this information for you in no short time through regular business operations. This would serve as your bone-positive control. In an ideal world (not limited by experimental budget constraints), you would also send all of these crematoria tested a legitimate bone-in dead cat.

You should also have sent your friendly crematorium at least one of your hamburger Stevies to incinerate so that you would have a negative control projecting what kind of ash mass you would expect to receive with a hamburger kitty. This would serve as your bone-negative control. Both of these controls would give you valuable information to compare to your test treatments at each crematorium. Again, in an ideal world without experimental budget limitations you would then repeat this experiment several times.

You may well be correct in your assertions, but you have failed to demonstrate it in a fashion that would stand up in either a court of law or published in a reputable scientific journal. These flaws in your experimental methodology leave weasel-room for the crematoria. This means that the bad guys might get off through reasonable doubt, facing scrutiny only in the court of public opinion.

Apologies for the tone, but controls are very important to good science.

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Looking for Accountability

Andrew - there is no 'ash mass' with ground beef as there is no bone. Fairly simple - no bone, no ash mass.

The point here is that the majority of families 'think' their pet was cremated by itself, without any other pet present in the chamber - when a pet owner asks for a cremation the only reference they have in their minds is the human cremation system – one person at a time. Sadly, their pet is more than likely being cremated with several other pets and this is a whole other discussion - private versus segregated cremations!

So for this example, there is absolutely no excuse for receiving cremains back - the crematorium should have contacted the vet where they picked up the pet and asked questions - was the cat from one of their regular families? For the crematorium to even think the 'ash' must have disintegrated and then pick bones from other cremations to send back to the family is bad business period! This would NEVER happen for a cat to have no ash left. I have cremated thousands of cats and I actually have kept records of the body weight going in and the ash weight in return. A colleague in PA has been keeping records for over 15 years... so we do have data. There is no need to compare 'ash mass' between a toy cat and a real cat because again, the toy cat would have no 'ash mass.'

One final point - burning plastic bags is very toxic - these contain polyethylene, which re-
leases dioxins when burned. There are hundreds of global reports on incineration and the issues with toxins and mercury. As a crematorium owner, every pet is placed inside the retort without plastics of any kind. So why do I bring this point up? I would have automatically caught this 'toy cat' prior to cremation.

I am sure the large volume based crematoriums would balk at this comment - but really, would we handle our humans differently because the funeral home handles too much volume? Do the service with dignity and respect, keep the middle man out, and you will earn what you deserve for the service provided.

I'll tell you a little secret - I called several vet clinics in Queens as a secret shopper asking what they would charge for a private cat cremation. (I have inside information that the clinics I called paid their cremation provider on average less than $70) and what did they quote me? Anywhere from $275 to $455!!! The $455 blew me away!! Ask yourself - who does the majority of the work, from picking up, cremating, packaging and returning the finished product to the clinic? Who do you think should get paid the most for this work?

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kevin f

I think you guys really missed it on this one. I like a "credulous citizens duped by unscrupulous jerks" story as much as the next guy, but I'd take an innocent until proven guilty stance here and I don't think you've proven anything. The most probable explanation here is that these crematoria are operating as they claim and that they did the expedient (and kind) thing by cutting a corner when one run didn't go as expected. They probably assumed their machine had malfunctioned or that something was different with this pet, but it's entirely possible that they were just trying to protect their reputation and a grieving owner's feelings by giving them what they expected. This is probably unethical, but so was lying to them in the first place. So let's call it even? I don't think it's fair to imply given this evidence that unscrupulous practice is the standard at these operations.

The better test would have been to use real animals with a titanium marker as your first guest did. That's the smoking gun.

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Garren Laymon

Agreed with comments above that take issue with the method of determining whether the pet crematory was mishandling remains. The lowly employee that feared for his job and gave you a scoop of ash from the "don't want my cat back" pile was stuck with his lie the moment he let that go back in the mail. He absolutely should have called to say something was wrong, but I think that your little study would have been better if it didn't produce an unusual result for the crematory.

polo

That's lots more than mixups with human ashes, which only bring tens to hundreds of thousands in damages