The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat (Ep. 142)

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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.”


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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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

Ed S.

This episode was an awful form of investigation reporting. the way the cremation companies were tested was poorly done. the chemical tracer that was initially talked about would have been a good test to repeat because it give a positive test of receiving your animal. I was waiting the whole show to hear the plausible explanation of why the fake cats came back with remains. if you were a worker at a crematorium and you opened the furnace and there was nothing there you would have to assume that you didn't put the animal in, something moved in the furnace. If you called the owner and said there animal disappear you would create all sort of problems including losings your job as the technician. so of course you would cover it up by giving other ashes (which is the same at a molecular level whether it is your pet or not). this experiment is a test of moral hazard more than corruption. I would expect economist to recognize this.

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Ed S.

In other words the null hypothesis of their trial should have been to get ashes back, verse getting a phone call. I would expect most people to cover up a lack of ashes even in a company with no systematic wrong doing.
if they had used tracer chemical the null hypotheses would be to get ashes back with tracer in the appropriate portion to the amount injected for the animal size. if there was a company wide corruption this result would be altered.
the way this episode was presented was defamatory.

Flyer

I love the Freakonomics pod casts since they blend economic theories with explanations about how the world works. However, I really didn't enjoy this podcast. This was just regular investigative journalism. If I wanted that I could get it from many many other sources. This podcast totally lacked what I feel makes Freakonomics so special.

Eric

Quite a few people have said it already, but this was basically sensationalist journalism masquerading as investigative journalism.

It is way too easy to imagine a confused, sympathetic, or even freaked-out employee substituting generic remains when a process that always results in bones and some other bits this one time only results in nothing at all. At least as easy as to imagine systemic fraud.

How hard would it have been to substitute something bone like - say fake bones made of light-weight concrete - but chemically distinct from bone and then test to see if you got back ground-up not-bone or ground-up bone? That way the crematorium employee has no reason to try and cover up the fact that they screwed up and lost your non-existent pet.

Instead you've sullied the reputation of three businesses that we have no reason to believe did anything other than try to cover their behinds when one employee covered their behind when something completely out of their experience happened. Or are you suggesting that it is not unusual for cremated pets to be reduced to nothing at all?

Choosing to start asking for financial support on the basis of such a shoddy, if not irresponsible, story is poor form indeed.

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J276

The titanium dioxide experiment was a good one, and exposes real problems in this industry. Private cremations are often group cremations. However, your experiment was poorly designed and likely days more about human psychology dealing with a crisis (no remains in the incinerator) than the methodology if the incineration practice at each company. Do you really think the right thing is to call and say your pets remains were burnt to hell??

Top it off by lending a mouthpiece to a legal action organisation that will increase the cost of cremation and vet services...perhaps some of these crematoriums make a lot of money, but as the poster above mentioned vets have the worst education cost to income ratio of any medical profession, and you're not squeezing more money from that stone.

Shameful.