Zoya Girard treated her beloved dachshund, Poncho, like a member of the family all his life. She's giving him the same kind of attention in death.
She wanted her 11-year-old dog to be buried in his favorite blanket, a prayer read at his graveside service and a viewing before he was laid to rest.
Girard leaned over his casket last week, looking at her beloved pet one last time in a visitation room at the East Lawn Pet Loss Center in Sacramento.
"He was like a grumpy old man, always barking," Girard said, weeping. She leaned over and kissed him. "But he was always there for me. This is the least I could do for him."
More often, man's or woman's best friends are getting final send-offs similar to those for their owners. Pet funerals with viewings or visitations, prayers, blessings and religious readings are becoming more common, say industry experts. The cost? About $800 and up.
Pet cemeteries have been around for decades, but the number of funerals 10- to 15-minute graveside services has increased dramatically in recent years, according to the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories in Georgia.
In the past, owners may not have shown up for their pets' burial. That has changed.
"They want them just like funerals for people," said Doyle Shugart, who serves on the board of directors and runs a pet cemetery in Atlanta. "I've seen some where people show up all dressed in black because they are really grieving. These pets are their family and they want to treat them like that. They don't mind spending the money."
Despite a shaky economy, owners are expected to spend almost $51 billion on their pets in 2011, up from about $48 billion in 2010. Sixty-two percent of U.S. households, or 72.9 million homes, own a pet according to a survey by the America Pet Products Association.
Numbers are not available on how much owners spend on pet burial services, but those in the industry say they have seen a jump.
"Our phone is always ringing and the number of burials and cremations we have been doing has shot up," said Lisa West, pet loss counselor at East Lawn Pet Loss Center on Verner Avenue. The site has had a pet cemetery since 1991, and recently updated and renamed it. An official grand opening was held last week.
"We know people really connect with their pets so we decided to emphasize it more and people have responded," she said. "There's a real need to say goodbye to their pets this way."
Dogs and cats but also birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, reptiles, and even a horse have been buried at the Sacramento cemetery.
The cemetery is also the final resting place for 43 police dogs, the most recent buried in April. All 12 of the canine units showed up for the funeral service.
"There is a strong bond between the handler and the dog. Some of them have worked together for years," said Linda Matthews, an officer in the Sacramento Police Department's canine unit. The cemetery donates the property and funeral-related costs for the police dogs. Other costs the casket and headstones are covered by the Sacramento Police Canine Association, a nonprofit that collects donations for the animals' care.
Funerals for pets are not cheap. Most run from under $1,000 to several thousand dollars, according to Shugart.
At the East Lawn Pet Loss Center, owners can choose a fiberglass casket for $80 for a 10-pound dog or cat, up to $495 for a 52-inch casket that can hold a mastiff. Poncho had a fiberglass casket, but more deluxe ones are available. A mahogany casket with a plush interior costs $6,000. One local owner recently ordered an $8,000 mausoleum for his dog. Pet owners, or "parents" as West calls them, who choose cremation most owners do can order personalized urns, which typically have a place for a photo of the pet.
Some pet parents have purchased multiple plots. Mariaelena and John Lovell rescue abused and abandoned dogs. They have buried four dogs. Last month, they said farewell to B.B., their beloved Maltese, in a ceremony that included a reading from Psalm 23 and a prayer to Saint Francis, patron saint of animals.
"They should have dignity in death," said Mariaelena Lovell. "It's a wonderful way to say goodbye. It just seems more complete."
Last month, a New York state agency ordered pet cemeteries to stop burying the remains of humans with their pets. Several states, including California, have similar laws. The Lovells have purchased a plot for themselves close to their dogs.
"We want to be as close to them as possible in the hereafter," said Lovell, 63.
Girard listened as West read aloud from "Poncho's Prayer."
"Lord, we are here today to express our love for our faithful friend and companion," West said.
Girard watched tearfully as the small casket was lowered into the ground and covered with dirt. Her friend Linda Kilgore made the sign of the cross.
"He was worth it," said Girard of the $860 cost. "I hope he rests in peace."