IN HIS OFFICE, on the mantle, Joe Lombardo has an urn with the remains of his beloved Samoyed, Butkus, named after the intimidating Chicago Bears linebacker.
Butkus died in 2008. The dog, that is.
The thing is, Lombardo can't be sure that's actually Butkus in the urn. After receiving Butkus' ashes, Lombardo questioned the cremation company.
"They tell you, 'We're telling you,' " Lombardo tells me. "That's all well and good, but wonder if this is really . . . " he says, his voice trailing off.
His suspicions motivated him to research online, which I duplicated. Over the past decade I found scattered reports from here and abroad of fraudulent pet cremation, including an FBI investigation into a case in Long Island that involved dozens of animals. (The Philadelphia FBI office tells me there have been no prosecutions in this area recently and it would have to be a massive case to draw in the FBI.)
One reason fraud can be committed with little fear of prosecution is that the pet-cremation industry is largely unregulated, other than for environmental reasons. (There are no pet crematoria in Philadelphia.) Each case of fraud amounts to a small amount of money - and victims usually don't even know they have been bilked.
Here's the process, says Lombardo, and verified by a vet I know:
"They make the vet office house the animals' bodies in freezers and pick them up in a big truck like trash and the bags have paper tags on them with the pet's name and the owner's name," Lombardo says. The vet has to trust the service to return the correct remains to the owner.
An undercover video I saw that was shot by a private investigator in Rochester, N.Y., was revealing. To test different crematoria, the P.I. got a toy stuffed cat, removed the stuffing, inserted five pounds of shrink-wrapped ground beef in the skin, wrapped it up in a towel like a dead pet, and brought it in to be cremated.
During cremation, the flesh and organs are totally consumed by the flames, leaving just bone fragments. The fragments are pulverized into a fine powder called the cremains, usually referred to as the ashes.
After the cremation, the P.I. was handed a box with the ashes. Since there were no bones in the fake cat skin, everything would have been consumed, leaving nothing. The remains handed to the P.I. were proof of fraud.
Coming to the belief that fraud was widespread, Lombardo, a pet lover, wanted to do something to make a difference. As the president of Williams Lombardo Funeral Home in Clifton Heights, he was in a position to do that.
He became the (only) local affiliate of Pet Passages, which handles pet funerals and cremations - dogs, cats, even parakeets - as solemnly as those for humans. Maybe you'd have to be a pet guardian to understand why that's important.
Pet Passages offers certainty in several ways, Lombardo says. A stainless-steel tag, with a tracking number, is attached to each animal so the owner can follow it through each step, like a FedEx parcel.
"The way we handle a body, that tag stays with the pet in the cremation receptacle, the tag is in the cremains, so you know you are getting your own pet back," he says.
Had Lombardo known about this earlier, he could be sure the urn on his mantle contains Butkus' remains.
As things are, he can only hope so.
On Twitter: @StuBykofsky