All pets go to heaven

"They laughed," she says. "But later, the same people were sitting in here crying. You don't know how you're going to feel until it happens to you."

Published July 9, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When Kathleen Leone and her husband Raymond first opened their funeral home in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn, Kathleen could hear the neighbors outside on the street laughing at the sign: "All Pets Go to Heaven Pet Funeral Home."

Kathleen and Raymond grew up in this neighborhood and for 21 years they've operated a funeral home for humans, but still their neighbors laughed or came inside just to gawk when they opened the new establishment. People with pets, even. One can imagine Kathleen sitting patiently through it all, like a mother waiting for her hyperactive kids to wind themselves down. She's been working in the death industry for two decades now. Her feelings aren't so easily bruised. "They laughed," she says mildly. "But then, later, I had these same people sitting in here crying. You don't know how you're going to feel until it happens to you."

All Pets Go to Heaven has been in operation for two years now and it seems very much part of the neighborhood. The Leones describe it as an "all service" pet funeral home, providing burials and cremations, both private and communal, wakes in the Victorian viewing room, online counseling for the grief-stricken, memorial cards and plaques, embalming and even freeze-dried taxidermy.

It's housed in a large, handsome brownstone on a street of brownstones. Raymond's parents own the building and his brother lives upstairs. Brown awnings shade the windows and are stamped with the silhouettes of rabbits and frogs.

Even though every year more and more hip young Manhattanites are moving into Carroll Gardens, it still feels like a working-class Italian neighborhood. There are religious shrines in some of the front yards and small markets run by fathers and their sons. And there's the pet funeral home. As soon as I stepped into the viewing parlor and saw the small, powder-blue coffin
for the small male dog or cat, I knew I was among people who weren't afraid of family feeling.

"I just had a wake for a Rottweiler, day before yesterday," Kathleen tells me. "He's being buried this morning. His owner's a single woman. She's burying him with a blanket she crocheted when she was a girl that was supposed to be for her first child. But she never married, never had any children. The dog was her son." Kathleen's the mother of three girls and very pregnant with the fourth. She has short blond hair, a strong face and brown eyes that look tired this particular morning, only a couple of weeks away from her due date. She's a registered nurse, and before she and Raymond opened up All Pets, Kathleen was a nursing supervisor in a long-term care facility for the elderly. Her daughters are named after her and Raymond's mothers and grandmothers. She describes herself as "old-fashioned" and says that their clients are just "regular Joes that come in off the street."

We talk at Kathleen's desk, in the middle room of the funeral home. In the front is the viewing parlor, where rows of chairs face the little blue coffin and a statue of St. Francis of Assisi. In the room behind us, there's a wide selection of urns displayed on shelves. Some are shaped like dogs; some look like pretty cookie tins and are stamped with kittens' faces or flowers.

The engravable urns are the most popular, according to Kathleen. They come in dark and light woods, white or gray granite and white marble, and are engraved with the deceased pet's name. The dates of birth and death and a photograph are applied to the front -- the smaller ones cost $125.

"In the past there were no options for people [whose pets have died]," Kathleen says. "Just our being here raises a question in people's minds -- oh, what am I going to do when my pet dies?" The options she and her husband provide raise more questions: Burial or cremation? Would I visit a grave? Do I need them nearer to me? On the mantelpiece? If I give a wake, who would come? And should I have a religious service or just read a poem?

Kathleen's right: The very presence of a pet funeral home causes you to think -- if not about what you want to do for your pet when it dies then about animals and where they fit into our lives, and about the rituals we have around death and the ways we circumscribe love.

The Rottweiler was the biggest animal that has been brought to the funeral home so far -- 52 inches long, running the entire length of Kathleen's freezer. He was only 6 years old when he passed away. "His owner was in shock," Kathleen says. "She thought maybe he got depressed when her mother got sick and that killed him."

The smallest animal was a goldfish named Poppy. His owner wanted him cremated. "I tried to convince her just to bury it," Kathleen says. "I said, you're not going to get hardly anything back, if you get the flick of an ash -- and that's about what she got back -- but she wanted that. I gave her the urn because it was ridiculous not to. Firing up the cremator costs the same amount of money whether it's a cat or a goldfish."

Kathleen had a goldfish herself at one time, and though she was sorry to see it pass on, she couldn't grieve for the fish like she would a dog or a cat. "But you know what? Someone could say, 'How can you feel that for a cat?' I think it's about security and love. That goldfish? That was what she had to come home to at night."

When I ask Kathleen what's the most unusual request she's ever gotten in the pet funeral business, she says, "I don't find anything to be unusual. Everything is individual, so it's not unusual." For a moment she seems to regard me almost warily, but it's not the look of a wounded person; it's sharper, more measuring than that.

"Your customers seem to be mostly women," I say to her, and she says quickly, almost sternly, no, not really, it's women and men, gay and straight, young and old, we get them all.

She's cremated two pythons for two different customers. Cato and Bruno. Bruno's the one she remembers because he was beautiful and big,about 150 pounds. The owner was a bouncer in a Manhattan club. He told Kathleen that he had his apartment climatized for the snake. He opted for cremation and a Roman urn.

"Actually I was surprised I didn't hear from him afterward," Kathleen says, since the more grief-stricken clients often feel the need to stay in touch for a while and the bouncer was pretty shaken up.

"But he had his friends," she remembers. "They came with him. I mean, he didn't have a viewing or anything, but his friends all came with him when he brought the python in and when he picked up the cremains, they all came with him again. So he had a good support system there."

It's always easiest for Kathleen when the clients want to tell her everything about the pet, especially if they choose to have a wake. Then she can spend those two hours talking to them about their animal and not just coming in and out of the room, asking if they're all right and if they want some water.

"Most of my people will bring photo albums and share the pictures of their pets with me, tell me about the one funny incident, the one bad incident -- you know, talk about the guilt of how they feel when they yelled at him," she says. "And I'll take them through what I need to do at that point to help them get over those guilty feelings."

She sees no difference between the human and the pet funeral business -- mourning is mourning, she says.

"Right now, I have a man whose pet is still living. His wife passed away within the last few months. She's out in St. Charles cemetery and he said he wasn't prepared for her death, and now the dog he's had for 14 years is pretty much ... on her last leg and he wants to be prepared.

"He doesn't want the same thing to happen to him, you know -- the emotions -- as when his wife passed away," she continues. "He wants to be prepared, so I've been talking to him on the phone throughout this week, two, three days a week. He wants to bury [the dog] out at the cemetery, which is very close to St. Charles, so this way he could do two visits in one day."

Kathleen didn't grow up with animals. Just one family dog, she says, and her sister got to have a turtle, a very small turtle, because "we didn't have the space, my mother worked full time, my father worked full time and there was a big stress on education, that was your first priority."

Her husband, Raymond, was the one with the zoo in the backyard. "Pigs, cows, snakes, everything," she laughs. "Believe it or not, when I first met him, they had pheasants flying in their house, they had goats in the backyard. They used to run pony rides in the neighborhood."

"So do you love animals more now, I mean, working in this business?" I ask her.

"I notice them more," she says, sounding careful again.

"Well, has running this business changed you?"

"Not really," she replies. For a minute I think she's just determined to make sure I find nothing strange or unusual about the pet funeral business, but maybe she's just telling me the truth.

"I used to be a regular Joe, working 8 to 4, Monday through Friday, and now I work by appointment when it's convenient for my clients," she explains. "Otherwise I'm really doing basically the same thing I was doing before -- I'm serving the public and I'm providing a service that's necessary. I come from a family of doctors and nurses, so we're all community service."

Finally, I get her to admit to one difference when I ask her if she ever gets her heart broken on this job.

"Yes, that's part of the business," she says. "I mean some people can detach themselves. I found that I was able to do it better -- function in the role of a nurse than I can function in the role of a funeral manager.

"As a nurse, my specialty was geriatrics and I felt that, all right, they had lived a very fulfilling life and they're here now, they're in a long-term care facility and I'm doing whatever I can to make the best of the rest of their life. I made every day fun. I made sure recreation was scheduled; I ran parties, dancing, singing, art. I really investigated their lifestyles," Kathleen continues, "so if they were just some antisocial people, they like to have their cup of tea and their crossword puzzle, like my mother, then I made sure that was maintained. I never forced them to do anything.

"So I felt satisfied, but here you don't have the time. I try to get as much information as possible but I don't have a lot of time. There I had years, you know? Here I don't. I have a very small window to work with."

On my last visit to the funeral home, I have the odd desire to ask Kathleen for a job. She has to take maternity leave, doesn't she? But I never get up the nerve. I feel incredibly peaceful sitting at her desk in the funeral parlor while she tells me the story of a young man named Elvis who had a wake for his cat, though no one in his family could understand.

"I felt so bad for him, he broke down in pieces," she says. "He was a real bruiser, someone you would think wouldn't shed one tear and I had to scrape him off the floor." His mother looked appalled; his girlfriend rolled her eyes. Kathleen sat with him, speaking to him about his cat. She paid no attention to the nonbelievers in the room. "I'm not going to leave the person who's come to me out in the cold," she says.

Elvis still calls her from time to time, though now it's every few months, instead of every week, so Kathleen knows he's worked through his grief; he's feeling better.

And my feelings about Kathleen have changed also. At first, I saw her as a brave defender of a misunderstood, even ridiculed love -- "How can you be so upset for a dog?" But finally, I could see that in defending and protecting these loves, she was protecting love itself, in whatever form it takes -- "Crying for a hamster, for God's sakes!"

Oh, the extravagant heart!

By Kathy Dobie

Pacific News Service associate editor Kathy Dobie is a New York journalist whose work has appeared in Vogue, Village Voice, Vibe and Salon.

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