Americans spend nearly $70 billion on their pets each year. Now, West Laurel Hill Cemetery is betting that some area owners will make one final purchase for their animals — a burial.
Late last month, the 149-year-old cemetery in Bala Cynwyd held a ceremony to roll out its latest venture: the designation of three of its 187 acres as the Laurels, a pet cemetery. As part of its new marketing push, West Laurel Hill is offering customers not only pet graves, but cremation. For a fee, the cemetery will also pick up a pet's body at a veterinarian's office and drive it to the cemetery or arrange euthanasia with an on-call vet.
Debbie Cassidy, the cemetery's director of sales and marketing, explained that West Laurel Hill started this initiative because it "didn't want to turn families away" when they asked about pet accommodations.
Nancy Goldenberg, the new chief executive of West Laurel, made a similar point.
"We know that pets are part of people's families," she said. "They're considered family members. Certainly, we hope that families that already have a relationship with us will consider our pet services."
In January, Goldenberg took over as leader of the nonprofit West Laurel, as well as its nonprofit sister cemetery, the smaller, but even older, burial ground across the Schuylkill in the East Falls neighborhood. The pet operation, though, is run by the affiliated West Laurel Hill Funeral Home Inc., a for-profit arm of the nonprofits.
Of the two cemeteries, public tax returns show that West Laurel generates the most revenue. In 2016, the last year for which reports were available, it took in $5.8 million and spent $5.2 million. In contrast, the smaller, 78-acre Laurel Hill — with far fewer available burial sites and 75,000 bodies already interred — took in $1.6 million and spent $1.2 million.
At West Laurel, operators are selling burial packages per pet that range from $1,095 to $2,499 depending on the size of the animal. That's cheaper than a human burial, where a plot alone starts at $2,500 at Laurel Hill, with cremation, coffins, and other services raising the price dramatically.
For those who want to cremate but not bury their pet, the cost is $550.
The Laurels isn't the first such burial ground in the region. Paws to Heaven in Pennsauken and Dear Pet Memorial Park in Bensalem Township in Bucks County are two of the largest. But the Laurels is the first in the area to offer what they dub "aquamation" — a variant on cremation that its advocates say produces fewer polluting greenhouse gases than traditional, "flame-based" crematoriums.
Chris Conti, the cemetery's capital projects manager, said that in essence, the process — taking place in West Laurel's new aquamation facility, housed in a rehabbed garage — uses water and lye to dissolve a body before the remains are burned and then put in an urn.
While aquamation is perfectly legal for animals in Pennsylvania, it's illegal for people (with the exception of medical cadavers). The Catholic Church, which only deemed cremation acceptable in 1963, opposes the procedure on the ground that it violates the sanctity of life and body. Fifteen states have permitted it for humans since 2003.
At the Laurels' recent opening, Goldenberg presided over what the cemetery called a "Yappy Hour" to commemorate the grand opening. Lee Cohen, who lives near West Laurel Hill, turned out accompanied by Cody, her 4½-pound Chihuahua. She acknowledges she hates to pass up any event with dogs. Still, she says she can't say for sure whether she would purchase a plot in the Laurels. "It depends on where I am financially," Cohen said.
Even if owners want to think ahead, insurance options appears limited. Most plans that cover pet medical costs don't cover either burial or cremation. As Philadelphia-based insurer PetPlan explained, "We cannot cover cremation or burial services but in the sad event a vet recommends euthanasia due to an injury or illness, we can provide coverage" for that procedure.
David and Glenda Glassman arrived for the grand opening in a Range Rover with Spartacus, a Spanish water dog that resembled a sentient mop. The Glassmans came to celebrate and to survey the grave of Maximus, their previous Spanish water dog. He was the first pet to be buried in the Laurels.
Jeanette Williams, a big Eagles fan, came with her dog Champion, a seven-month-old black lab. He's called Champion because she happened to get him on the night of the Eagles' victory parade. Her last dog, Chiffon, a chocolate lab, was buried in the Laurels, and she coaxed the puppy into posing for a picture on Chiffon's grave, next to the small grave marker with an etching of the dog's likeness and name.