In 2007, real estate tycoon Leona Helmsley died of heart failure, leaving explicit instructions on what to do with her $4 billion fortune: the bulk would go into a family trust and some $12 million would go to “Trouble”, her fluffy white Maltese.
Like many who come into money, the dog retired to Florida. Carl Lekic, the general manager of one of Helmsley’s hotels, looked after Trouble, receiving $60,000 a year for his troubles. Another $8,000 went for grooming, $1,200 for food and $100,000 went for full-time security, as Trouble had received numerous death threats. Earlier this month it was revealed that Trouble was dead. He was 12 years old. Helmsley’s wishes were to have the dog buried with her and her husband in their $1.4 million mausoleum in Sleepy Hollow, New York, but these wishes were not carried out. New York state prohibits interment of pets in human cemeteries.
But the way we deal with the death of pets is changing. Although most places still prohibit pets to be buried with people, pets now receive many of the same death rites that humans do, such as funeral services and cremations. The first pet funeral home opened in Indianapolis in 2004, now there are more than 750 of them. Other companies have sprouted up to offer grief counseling to people who have lost pets. And just like in the human funeral industry, pet burial scandals have arisen. “On the human side, the biggest issue out there is always wrongful cremation,” one funeral industry consultant recently told the AP. “On the pet side, it’s not wrongful cremations, but whether cremations are being done at all.” In cases in Arizona, Virginia and Tennessee pets slated to be cremated were actually dumped in landfills.
But most pets these days are treated well in death, and sometimes exceptionally well. In 2007, an Indianapolis police dog named Bo was struck down in the line of duty. The dog had been with the force for about four years when a burglar turned around and fired several shots into the animal. “Bo went back to his handler and died in his arms,” said one lieutenant. More than 140 people attended his funeral.
The oldest pet cemetery in the country is the Hartsdale Canine Cemetery, which houses nearly 70,000 pets, including birds, rabbits and a lion cub, and is in the suburbs just north of New York City. The cemetery was begun in 1896 in an apple orchard owned by a New York City veterinarian named Samuel Johnson, in an effort to console a city dwelling friend who had nowhere to bury his dog. After a newspaper article reported the story other requests came pouring in. Johnson set aside three acres of the orchard and devoted it to a burial ground for pets. In 1921 a memorial was erected in honor of the dogs that died serving in the trenches and battlefields of World War I. “Judging from a walk through the pet burial ground, most owners opt for impressive monuments and headstones,” reads a 1986 New York Times article. Numerous celebrities have pets buried there, including Diana Ross, Mariah Carey, opera singer Robert Merrill, ballroom dancer Irene Castle and George Raft, an actor who often played the criminal in early mob movies.
Some of the newest pet cemeteries in the world are in China, which is experiencing a veritable pet cemetery boom. In a cemetery covering 300 hectares at the foot of a large mountain range in Xian, the capital of Shaanxi Province, there are some 600 graves. Prices for plots range from 1,680 yuan ($256) to more than 36,000 yuan, or about $5,600, according to an article in the Sanqin Daily. Just like with humans, there are often messages etched onto tombs. “Dou Dou, my love for you is eternal,” reads one. Although snakes and pigs are among the animals buried there, 80 percent are dogs. The most expensive grave is for a Tibetan mastiff and costs 4.8 million yuan, or $733,000. The dog is buried in a jade coffin. Even grander graves may be to come. A coal baron from Qingdao recently paid 10 million yuan ($1.54 million), the most amount of money ever paid for a dog, for a red Tibetan mastiff named Big Splash.