When Lynn Wilkinson met her new neighbor, Stacey Rousseau, she didn’t expect to need Rousseau’s business services anytime soon. Wilkinson, owner of the Mane House & Boutique in South Burlington, was in Rousseau’s client pool — pet owners — but her English pointer, Opie, was still young and vital. Rousseau plans end-of-life services for pets at her new Williston Road business, Timeless Paws.
Then, on a recent Sunday, Opie died suddenly of a heart attack. Rousseau sped down from her home in Milton to collect the dog’s body and prepare it for cremation. “My kids and myself were devastated,” Wilkinson remembers. “[Rousseau] was so kind and so good to us. She never once made us feel bad about it being a Sunday.”
“This was my dream,” Rousseau says, surveying the funeral home that she opened earlier this year. Timeless Paws isn’t just a last stop for beloved pets: Rousseau offers services ranging from funeral pre-planning to Reiki for pet health. The animal lover says she strives to do all she can to nurture the bond between owners and pets, on this plane and the next.
In the weeks that followed Opie’s death, Rousseau continued to help the Wilkinsons memorialize their dog. After a few days, his ashes returned home in a locally crafted pine box. Wilkinson’s daughter got a locket filled with the pooch’s hair. A donation was made in Opie’s name to a local pet charity.
While Rousseau’s services reflect her love of animals, they also make good business sense. Death aftercare services are a growing segment of the pet-care industry — which, as a whole, brought in $52.87 billion in 2011. Death-care industry blog FuneralOne.com cited this figure as evidence that one way to resuscitate the ailing funeral business is to extend its services to fur bearers.
The pet memorial biz is still too new to boast many hard statistics of its own. But, according to a 2012 Bloomberg Businessweek article titled “There’s Never Been a Better Time to Be a Dead Pet,” there are about 700 pet aftercare facilities in the United States so far. Timeless Paws is one of two businesses in Vermont that offers funeral services and body disposal, as well as grief counseling and a slew of memorial products. The other, White Rose Pet Memorial Services, is in Brattleboro.
Despite the rising popularity of the industry, it has a stigma to overcome. When people hear “pet funeral services,” they often think of the darkly comic Evelyn Waugh novella The Loved One, or of the 1965 film adaptation. But Timeless Paws has no Gothic Slumber Room or eternal flames, either “perpetual” or “standard,” and Rousseau is no “Blessed Reverend.”
Though she does indeed operate a business (caskets start at $95; cremation services depend on the weight of the pet), Rousseau exudes uncommon warmth from the moment she greets guests at Timeless Paws.
At the entrance of the bright, airy space, she displays memorial work by Vermont artists, including beaded bracelets woven from the hair of deceased horses, fused-glass pendants filled with bits of cremains, and painted or stained-glass portraits of deceased animals. Or living ones.
Rousseau works to make Timeless Paws a vibrant place with a focus on life rather than death. For instance, clients can memorialize a pet by purchasing a leaf on the wall-size Honorary Memorial Tree. The fees, starting at $49, are donated in full to one of a rotating roster of animal charities. The current recipient, Emma’s Foundation for Canine Cancer, helps owners pay for their pets’ costly treatments.
Rousseau’s two fluffy, white husky mixes aren’t the only living dogs that prance through the door. A longtime Reiki practitioner, Rousseau treats both animals and people, and bodywork, including acupressure and aromatherapy, is a large segment of her business. Many of her clients are non-pet owners whom she’s been treating since before she opened Timeless Paws.
Are animal-bodywork clients uncomfortable bringing their healthy pet to a funeral home? “Some people have thought, Oh, I don’t want to go because of that, and they are just absolutely surprised that here it’s about the joy of the relationship, not the saying good-bye,” Rousseau says. “That’s really important to me. We’re here to nurture every aspect of the relationship.” But she does offer in-home services for those who prefer not to pass by urns and caskets on the way to their rubdown.
Rousseau’s involvement in the death aftercare industry inspired her to pick up bodywork in the first place. The idea gelled when she was working at Island Memorial Pet Services, the Isle La Motte crematorium that Timeless Paws now uses. “I cried every pickup, but at the end of the day, here I am, a mom with two kids,” Rousseau recalls. She needed a way to decompress. “Then I found energy work and started using it on myself. I would bless the pet, and it started making me feel better.”
As Rousseau’s interest in healing grew, her desire to help people deal with the loss of pets didn’t diminish, and she found herself combining the two.
At the crematorium, Rousseau focused on the deceased pets. At Timeless Paws, the people left behind are just as important. Besides bodywork, she now offers one-on-one grief-counseling sessions in person or by phone. She’s also working to schedule pet-loss support-group meetings.
Though Rousseau isn’t a psychologist, she says self-help classes, certifications in ThetaHealing and Access Consciousness, and on-the-job experience have taught her all she needs to know to be an active, helpful listener with advice for grieving clients. Wilkinson can attest to that.
“We were walking zombies for a week,” she recalls of her family’s reaction to Opie’s passing. “Some people don’t like pets, but when they are part of your family, [Rousseau] understands. It just says ‘caring’ all over, the whole experience,” Wilkinson adds. “Her soul, her being is just wonderful.”
Dogs and cats aren’t the only ones who get a royal send-off at Timeless Paws. Rousseau says she’s cremated a goldfish and a potbellied pig, among other unconventional companions.
Cremations can be arranged for the day an animal dies, potentially right after euthanasia, which Rousseau can help schedule at home or at a vet’s office. Otherwise, a tracking service allows the family to know precisely when their loved one will return to them in the urn of their choice. Rousseau says the ashes of a fish, hamster or tiny bird could fit into one of the memorial necklaces she offers.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Timeless Paws is working on offering cremation for bigger animals such as horses, but the option isn’t yet available. When Rousseau gets a call that a horse has expired, she brings a flatbed truck to collect the remains. From there, the body is composted on a bed of sawdust. Depending on the process, it takes between nine and 12 months for the horse to return to the earth. Rousseau brings the compost to the family with a memorial tree planted in it, the species of which is chosen to suit the animal’s personality.
Since Rousseau hasn’t found any pet cemeteries in Vermont, other animals that aren’t cremated must be interred at home, at least for now. She says she hasn’t seen much demand for body-preservation services, such as taxidermy and freeze-drying, but she has made contacts with professionals in those areas should the need arise.
Memorial services take place in the quiet chapel next to the bodywork room. The funeral director opens up the whole space to the grieving family, including a spacious kitchen where she helps them prepare coffee, tea or other snacks as desired. The $265 “Ceremonial Celebration of Life” includes a memorial slide show, the burning of a pillar candle, a personalized leaf on the memorial tree and a luminary release, among other services at the family’s choice.
Luminaries — floating lanterns lit with tea candles — may be picturesque, but Rousseau recently got an even more poetic idea for commemorating pet companions: memorial butterfly releases. Fireworks displays are another option on her radar. “We can do anything,” she says with a glimmer in her eye.
Perhaps Waugh’s rocket to propel a pet’s remains into orbit isn’t so far-fetched after all.
Timeless Paws, 4540 Williston Road, Williston, 497-1226. timelesspawsvt.com
The original print version of this article was headlined "The Bark Eternal"