Pet home burials are still popular despite an increase in pet cremations. Home burials are private, personal and less expensive than other alternatives.
Although the popularity of pet cremations has increased in recent years, it isn’t for everyone. Some recent stories in the media of people abusing the trust put in them must have put many people off pet cremation. Apart from the horror stories, pet cremation has other pitfalls that you need to be aware of such as individual versus communal cremation. Communal cremation is common. Always assume the cremation of your pet will be communal unless told otherwise.
Do you really get your own pet’s ashes back? Was your pet even cremated or simply dumped somewhere while the fee was pocketed? The intricacies and pitfalls of pet cremation are many. It is not like human cremation. It doesn’t seem to be regulated… but that is a whole other article.
Let’s talk about performing a home burial for your dog. If you want to bury your dog at home, here are some things to be aware of.
Are you allowed to bury your pet at home?
There are few laws or rules regarding home pet burial. As long as you own the property (not renting), it has a domestic use and your dog lived there (although quite frankly who is going to check that part), you can bury your pet at home*.
The only exception to UK home burial would be if your pet’s remains are considered to be hazardous waste. This seems open to interpretation. If your vet did use this as a reason for your pet not to be allowed home for a burial, ask them for a written explanation.
Also, if you own the property but are worried about what will happen if you move, a home burial may not be your best option.
* Please note that this information is correct for the UK. If you live elsewhere you may need to check the legalities for where you live.
Hold a wake
Holding a wake came from the very sensible need to know if a person was really deceased before burying them. The person would be laid out and literally left for a while to see if they would wake up. It sounds strange to us now, but if you are at home with a dying pet it is not necessarily immediately evident when they have passed away. A vet will listen to their heart with a stethoscope and will discreetly check for your pet’s vital signs. But as owners, how can we be sure?
I know it is another dreadful thing to have to think about but you do need to be sure of your pet’s passing before you bury or refrigerate the body. Even vets have been known to get it wrong. It is rare and not something to have nightmares about but here are some signs of death to check for:
Check for a pulse or heart beat - place two fingers (not your thumb) lightly on the dog’s chest between/behind the front legs or inside the back legs where the back leg joins the body.
Watch and listen for signs of breathing.
Check the colour of the gums, which are usually pink when the dog is alive.
Finally the start of rigor mortis, where the body becomes stiff, is a sure sign of death.
Don’t feel afraid of making sure of death. It is important. You may even want to call your vet and explain that you would like help determining the death of your pet. Don’t be afraid to do the checks above or to ask for help if you need it.
When your dog has passed away, get a plastic sheet or something else waterproof like a bin bag. This is because bodily fluids can come out of your pet’s body after death and possibly again when moved or handled. On top of that you can put a blanket or towel. Here you can lay your dog’s body on their side, slightly curled up in a sleeping position. This looks more pleasant, makes for easier handling later and positioning in the grave.
During this time, if you have any other pets, you may choose to show them the body of their doggie pal. I always feel this can help other dogs or pets in the household to understand that one of their pack has died, rather than wondering where they have gone. Let them see and smell the body and give them as much time as they need, which doesn’t tend to be more than a few sniffs.
As mentioned above, it is a good idea to wait 2-3 hours after death before burying your pet, to be sure of their demise. Once rigor mortis has set in you can go ahead with the burial.
Sometimes the burial can’t take place right away. Maybe you are waiting for a family member to come home or for a coffin to arrive. If this is the case, it might be an idea to ask your vet if you can use space in their mortuary refrigerator. If this is not possible or if the wait is only for a little while, a cool dark basement or similar place will suffice (depending on temperature, humidity etc…).
Your pet’s grave
Select the position of the grave carefully. It is nice to pick an area of your garden that is pretty or that your dog enjoyed in their lifetime but certain things need to be considered.
Choose a place that is unlikely to need to be excavated in the future (so flower beds are often best avoided unless you plan to put a tree or memorial stone on top) and don’t put a grave in a place that gets boggy or is at risk of flooding. Also, keep the grave site far away from water sources such as wells, ponds, streams etc… Also take care not to disrupt any underground pipes or cables.
To prepare your dog’s grave, measure around your dog to get an idea of the size of grave you need to dig, width and length wise. Depth wise, the grave should be at least 3-4 feet deep. This is for health reasons and also to safeguard against scavengers, other pets from digging up the burial area, or even rain from washing away topsoil and uncovering the grave. Don’t forget a 3 foot deep grave allows for about 2 foot of soil to go back on top.
Your dog should be buried in something that is biodegradable like a towel, blanket, wooden, wicker or cardboard coffin. Avoid making a casket out of anything plastic or anything else that is non-biodegradable.
Once the grave is filled you will have a mound of earth that can be piled on top. It will eventually settle in time.
Let the whole family be part of the burial. Writing poems, saying a few words, letting children add letters, drawings and dog toys to the grave can all help.
Finally, to mark your pet’s final resting place you can plant a lovely bush or shrub and/or add a keepsake or pet memorial stone.
Try to think in advance about what you want to happen to your pet’s body after their death. Facing their death is upsetting enough without having to suddenly decide what you want to do with their body. I have known people who hadn’t thought about it in advance and made a quick decision at the time of death that they later regretted.
If you know you would like a home burial for your pet, plan ahead. This is especially important if you want to purchase a coffin. The last thing you want to have to do when you are grieving, in shock and up against time is start a search for the perfect coffin for your dog.
Cardboard pet coffins can really help as they are affordable and come flat packed, making them easy to store until needed. A plain cardboard coffin can often also be personalised, which is a lovely activity for the whole family.
I think home burial is a very personal way to deal with a pet’s passing. It is not expensive and you know exactly what has happened to your pet’s body during the entire process, rather than entrusting the handling to someone else.
Finally, many people feel that, once their pet has passed, the body is now simply an unused vehicle from their life on earth. Don’t feel you have to go to any great lengths to care for remains if you don’t want to. We all have different feelings about this. As long as everyone who loved the pet is in agreement with what should happen to the body, that is all that matters.
“The one best place to bury a good dog is in the heart of his master." Ben Hur Lampman - 1925