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A final resting place for pets

Crematorium offers comfort for grieving owners

It was as if Lynn Donaldson’s feet were encased in concrete as she carried Crystal in her arms for the few steps from her office to the pet crematorium across the parking lot.

Crystal, a white fluffy bichon-shih tzu cross, was both a literal and figurative gift given to Donaldson’s daughter for her birthday.

“I divorced when my daughter was seven so it was just me and my girl and Crystal – just the three of us. Our little gang. We did everything together,” says Donaldson, clutching a framed photo of her beloved Crystal.

Princess Park near the Donaldson home in Upper Lonsdale was their favourite place for a walk. Crystal would always be carrying a stuffed purple dinosaur in her mouth. The prehistoric toy was given to Donaldson’s daughter by Maurice “Rocket” Richard many years ago at a special party for sick children, and Crystal somehow got her paws on it.

Crystal was the congenial office dog at Donaldson Ropes located in a business park on West First Street near Fell Avenue. Across the way, the employees at Until We Meet Again pet memorial centre had come to know Crystal from her daily walks in the complex.

One Friday afternoon last September Crystal passed away in her sleep at the office.

“She was behind me at work, on her back,” recalls Donaldson softly.

The staff all sat on the floor with Crystal and comforted her human best friend. After a while, Donaldson, in a disoriented state, scooped up Crystal in her arms and instinctively knew where to go.

Meanwhile, Kelsey Speck happened to be looking out the window at that exact moment from her desk at the pet memorial centre. She saw Donaldson with Crystal and immediately went running outside and met them halfway.

“I could tell by her face she was crying and really sad,” recalls Speck.

Donaldson gently placed the deceased dog in the open arms of Speck, who reassured: “I’ll treat her as if she’s my own.”

It’s been six months since Crystal passed, but the grief is still fresh for Donaldson. Looking back, Speck was her saving grace in the parking lot on that day.

“I came across Kelsey. I’ve never had such a feeling. Like I swear she is an angel or something. She’s the most comforting person I’ve ever met in my whole life,” says Donaldson.

That kind of compassion could have helped Kevin Woronchak, founder of Until We Meet Again, which was borne out of a tragedy 10 years ago. Three of his pets passed away – in one week.

Patches was a part of the package deal when the Woronchak family moved to a farm in Surrey. Woronchak concedes he wasn’t a cat person then, but he soon warmed up to them.

“Patches followed me around and everything I did on the farm Patches was there,” recalls Woronchak. “Then the owner said: ‘Oh, by the way I think she’s pregnant.’”

So there were kittens, named Adidas, Fila and Umbro for the sport-obsessed family.

On a sunny June day Patches was killed. Woronchak suspects she got excited by the sound of a truck passing by on a quiet road. In the midst of getting ready to go to Washington state for a vacation, the family had to plan to give Patches the memorial she deserved.  

Woronchak bundled up his farm buddy and took her to the local vet. When asking about cremation, what Woronchak heard from the vet was heart wrenching.

“He said you probably don’t get your (pet’s) ashes back anyways. It really bothered me.”

Woronchak turned around and walked out the door with Patches.

He thought of the incinerator at the poultry farm the family was living at. It was the only way.

Woronchak and his wife Joanna, and their boys, ages five, seven and nine at the time, said their goodbyes to Patches. The five-year-old put his hand on his furry friend and said: “Patches, I’m going to miss you.”

With a heavy heart Woronchak went to clean out the incinerator. He placed Patches inside.

“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my whole life.”

Woronchak’s wife was wondering where he was. She hadn’t seen him in a while.

“It took me forever because turning that dial I knew the (incinerator) would turn on, and it shook me – it shook me hard. I was bawling.”

Still fresh in their grief, the family continued on with their vacation plans. A couple days in, Woronchak got a call from his nephew who was watching over the family’s remaining pets. Their bichon poodle cross Libby had been attacked by another dog and the vet was unable to save her.

The family packed up and left at 6 a.m. the next morning to return home. One hour into the trip Woronchak got another call from his nephew. The unimaginable had happened.

“He said, ‘Kevin, more bad news.’ And I said: ‘no, no, no, no, no.’ And he said, ‘Kayla just passed away in the hallway.’”

The family’s German shepherd, Kayla, who was like a sister to Libby, died of a broken heart – Woronchak is sure of that.

He had to come face to face with the incinerator one more time that week – for both of his beloved dogs. They were cremated together.

“We were absolutely devastated. We had Kayla and Libby since they were pups; our boys didn’t know life without them.”

Shortly after his spate of pet tragedies, Woronchak and his family wanted to create a special place where people could properly say goodbye to their canine companion or feline friend.

But it’s not just conventional house pets Until We Meet Again cremates. A beta fish, a boa constrictor, a black bear, and even a sea lion family have been cremated at the facility.

The next closest crematorium of its kind is in Abbotsford, which is why Woronchak saw an opportunity on the canine centric North Shore. City of North Vancouver council more than just gave their blessing for the crematorium.

“They were saying we are a total pet community and we really see you fitting in well here,” says Woronchak.

• • •

Woronchak has just come off a night shift – he’s been a North Vancouver District firefighter for two decades – and now he’s at his other job, doing what he does best: helping people in their time of need.

He bends down to pet Daisy, a black cat sitting in a stream of sunlight by the front door of Until We Meet Again. Daisy has taken over the blond tabby Stretch’s post as official greeter.  

Stretch is a gentle soul who can sense sadness, says Woronchak. He’ll slowly approach a grieving person in the midst of making arrangements or saying goodbye and give them a comforting nudge.

A photo of Kayla, the family’s late shepherd, frolicking in Tofino when she was young is emblazoned on an oversized woven blanket hanging on the centre wall in the quiet room. It’s a private sanctuary for people to spend some final peaceful moments with their pet.

Next door is the reflection room, a tranquil, calming setting furnished with a fountain, stones and flowers. Here the bereaved meet with an Until We Meet Again staff member to make final arrangements.

These days there’s a burgeoning market for pet memorial products. A plethora of pet urns (some simple, others more ornate) sit on the shelves and range in price from $10 to $200, depending on the size of the pet and the urn’s material.  

There’s even the option to incorporate a pet’s ashes into art or jewelry. Woronchak’s family had a bit of Kayla’s ashes entwined in a blown-glass art globe.

A standard choice is a cedar box. With a West Coast esthetic, it’s a fitting resting spot for a pet that liked to go on adventures in the outdoors here.

Along with their pet’s ashes, the owner can receive a “luv print.” One of the last steps before a pet is cremated here sees a staff member taking an impression of the paws in clay.

Until We Meet Again works with a local artist who carefully kiln-fires the print so as not to alter the actual impression, and then inscribes the pet’s name on the back. For a cat, they will put two paw prints side by side.

In the reflection room is where Woronchak and his staff have witnessed multicultural and multi-faith memorial ceremonies.

“It’s a very important time,” says Woronchak. “Depending on different religions, different family traditions, we want to honour those things.”

Before a viewing, a staff member will brush and clean the pet before placing it on a rolling stretcher with blankets and a pillow. A paw will be sticking out, or maybe just the head so the family has something to stroke.

Every culture has its own set of rituals for remembrance.

An East Indian family asked to have their oldest son press the crematorium button.

“That’s important to them,” says Woronchak.

In the Japanese tradition, remains are not fully processed down. The custom is for family members to pick bones from the ashes and transfer them to an urn, using large chopsticks.

Buddhists believe that prayer must be a part of the entire cremation process. Once the owner turns and walks away, a prayer recording continuously plays outside the crematorium chamber door.

Families will leave behind letters, kids’ drawings, toys, pictures or a favourite outfit they want their pet to be cremated with. Or sometimes a treat.

The option is given for a family member to place their beloved pet into the crematorium and rest them on the cement floor. The door closes and an ignition button is activated.

The room falls silent except for the whirring noise of the active furnace, which reaches a temperature of 1,500 °C.

It takes 1½ to three hours on average for a cremation, depending on the size of the animal. A cat might take half an hour, if the crematorium, which runs on natural gas, has been warmed up. Until We Meet Again does 700 private cremations a month, which costs on average $175, compared to $60 for a communal cremation.

A communal cremation – 30 animals inside together – was underway when the North Shore News toured the facility. Woronchak will spread the ashes on a friend’s expansive property in the Fraser Valley.

“I was told (by the regional district at the time) to put it in the dumpster and I refused,” he says. Woronchak shakes his head when he hears of places that allow pets to be disposed of like trash.

According to the official website of the City of New York: “You can also put a dead animal out for pickup by the Department of Sanitation on your garbage day. The remains must be placed in a heavy-duty black plastic bag or double plastic bag and a note should be taped to the bag stating its contents (for example, ‘dead dog’ or ‘dead cat’).”

In some Metro Vancouver municipalities, you are not allowed to bury your pet because of the potential for the euthanizing drug to harm the environment or nearby creatures.

North Vancouver and West Vancouver district don’t have any regulations around pet burial on private property.

In an arena with some unscrupulous players – a 2012 undercover investigation of several B.C. crematoriums found pet owners often weren’t getting their proper remains back – Woronchak says he takes extra steps to be transparent. He attends conferences every year tied to the human funeral industry. Until We Meet Again is the only facility in Western Canada to be accredited by the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematoriums.

“I can tell you it’s extremely tough doing what we do,” Woronchak says. “We all have an emotional toll here. All the staff members love animals more than most. The cards and letters here keep us going and encourage us.”

Above all, the staff wants to make sure they are looking after a bereaved pet owners’ emotional well-being.

“This is something we don’t take lightly,” says Woronchak.

Until We Meet Again hosts a free pet loss support group on the first Thursday of every month. A circle of chairs is put out and coffee and water are provided. Attendees will clutch a photo or pet toy as they talk about what they are feeling.

One of the facilitators is registered professional counsellor Mandy Cunnington who says the pain, sorrow, anger, and guilt that accompany the pet grieving process can be quite debilitating.

Many pet owners tend to minimize their feelings of grief and may be encouraged by others to mask their sorrow or move on prematurely, she adds, which can increase the risk for developing clinical depression, especially in single people and the elderly.

Breaking a set routine when a pet dies – daily walks, greetings at the door, meeting other pet owners at the park – can trigger that grief.

Previous generations of kids may have been told that “Fido went to go live on a farm,” when their dog died.

Cunnington says while it can be a parent’s natural instinct to take away the suffering and unintentionally dismiss their child’s sadness, an honest, age-appropriate conversation about death is appropriate. Group therapy is helpful to make the bereaved feel less alone, explains Cunnington.

“Recognizing their story in someone else’s is very powerful,” she says. “When people feel less alone with their suffering it makes it more bearable.”

Most people feel lighter after leaving the pet support group, having found laughter, joy, love and friendship amidst their grief.

• • •

Lynn Donaldson cremated her beloved dog Crystal in a pink hoodie and with her favourite toy.

At Donaldson’s home, there’s a cedar box adorned with a heart and Crystal’s name.

Asked what looking at the special box reminds her of, Donaldson’s answer is simple: “Just the love,” she says.