BETA

Burnt bone

Graphic by Haewon Ma

“I’d like to watch a cremation,” I tell Beth on my first visit to Trail’s End Pet Crematory in Westbrook, Conn. Beth is a soft blond who works in the main office. A devout animal lover, she would rather endanger her own life than tread on a woolly bear caterpillar, and she keeps a dresser full of clothing for her five dogs. Surprised by my request, she refers me to “Poor Jeff,” the Trail’s End cremator whose sad job it is to turn little furry bodies into bags of ash. Cremations, Beth warns me, are hard to watch.

I walk over to Jeff Jones’ office and am greeted almost instantly by a taut, efficient-looking man with a camo baseball cap pulled over his eyes.

“I knew you were here,” he says. He wipes his leather-colored hands on his jeans before offering to shake one of mine.

“Don’t believe anything she says,” he says of Beth, unprompted. He lights a cigarette. The smoke mingles with the lavender ash already in the air. While Beth is loquacious and unapologetically sentimental, Jeff is brief and sardonic, a character distinction reflected in their differing roles at the crematory. Beth acts as a counselor for the acutely bereaved; Jeff burns the bodies.

I explain to Jeff that Beth has informed me he is a softie. She has told me that Poor Jeff feeds the local deer and stops his car to help snapping turtles cross the street. Jeff gruffly denies all allegations. I ask him what it’s like to cremate dead pets. He shrugs. “You get used to anything.”

***

Jeff comes in at 5:30 every morning to start the Crawford Random Load Crematory. The C500p, the smallest of the Crawford crematory line, can handle loads of up to 200 pounds: approximately the weight of a Newfoundland. Anything larger goes down the hill to the machine used for communal cremations. The C500p cremates the “privates” individually so that their ashes can be returned to the owners post-cremation. Communal cremations are for road kill, the fish that die at pet stores before they’ve been sold, and animals whose owners do not want their ashes back. Ashes from these cremations are scattered in the forest that surrounds Trail’s End. On any given day, using the C500p, Jeff burns 15 to 18 animals at a rate of 75 pounds per hour.

Today, contained in two crematory trays and a black trash bag, his next batch of animals sits on a cart immediately in front of the crematory. The trays, which remind me of the sheet cake pans used for birthday cakes, have been heavily warped by heat. Jeff buys them from Welding Works, Inc., in Madison, Conn. Peering into the trays, I see that the animals within are shrouded in black plastic.

“A ferret, a bunny, and a pit bull,” Jeff says, anticipating my question. He arranges the tags that contain the owner’s information on a table near the crematory, so he can remember which animal is which.

“Do you need to take them out of the bags?” I ask.

“It burns off fast,” says Jeff as he tosses the pit-bull-filled bag into the crematory. He pushes the bag to the back of the machine with a metal instrument he calls “The Scraper,” which resembles the peel used to push pizzas around in pizza ovens.

The C500p has a random load feature, which means you can add animals to the main chamber at any time, since a flame is already going inside the machine. The metal chain I wear around my neck starts to feel uncomfortably hot as it absorbs the heat emanating from the crematory. Before Jeff has the ferret tray fully in the oven, the dog’s plastic bag has melted, coating the animal in a layer of black tar. The pitch-black hellhound basks in the glow of the flames as Jeff finishes loading his charges. He then moves to a touch-sensitive panel, lowers the door, and switches on the main flame. Jeff raises the door again to show me the flame, a column of fire that bores into the animals.

“And that’s that. It’s a waiting game,” he says with a smile, as though he knows I was expecting guts, gore, and a touch of magic. I try to smell the plastic as it burns, but all I get is a lungful of lavender ash and a faint whiff of meat on the grill.

***

Children might imagine becoming firefighters or veterinarians as adults, but when Jeff was growing up in Clinton, Conn., he never imagined becoming a cremator. Jeff was raised by his mother, Linda, who works as a secretary, and his stepfather, Bill Scully, a Clinton cop. I ask about his biological father, and Jeff replies, “We don’t talk about him.”

When he was young, Jeff pictured himself at his current age, 50, as someone on the verge of retirement from a career in the armed forces. At 18, after earning his high school diploma, Jeff enlisted in the army, but, in less than a year, family problems forced him to leave.

Jeff was running a concrete shop when he received the cremator job offer from George Bernard, the man who started Trail’s End in 1987. George, a former dog handler for the police department, was friends with Jeff’s uncle and had known Jeff since he was a child. He knew that Jeff was meticulous, hardworking, and caring—the qualities necessary to be a good cremator. George was also aware that Jeff was unhappy with his current job. In November of 1994, at the age of 28, Jeff began working as George’s apprentice at the crematorium. Jeff has been at Trail’s End for 21 years. Each time he has tired of the work and thought about quitting, George has offered him a raise. Today, his salary is $75,000 a year.

***

Over the course of his time at the crematorium, Jeff has noticed a rise in the number of cremations. In 2013, George’s son, Bill, sold the crematorium to the Hartsdale Canine Cemetery and Crematory, a New York-based company that has the distinction of being the oldest pet cemetery in the United States. Trail’s End retained all its original staff, and functions essentially the same way it always has, save for a new process in which each privately cremated animal gets assigned a number. In the year and a half since the change in ownership, 2,811 animals have passed through Jeff’s C500p.

Though pet cremation is a fairly young tradition, there have long been rituals surrounding the death of a pet. As early as 4,000 years ago in Egypt, people would mummify and bury pets alongside their owners. Animals were often killed so they could accompany their owners to the afterlife. During the nineteenth century, pet cemeteries started to become prevalent. In 1896, when it was still common for owners to throw out their dead pets with the rest of the garbage, the Hartsdale Canine Cemetery became the first pet cemetery to open in America. Hartsdale began when a woman walked into the office of veterinarian Dr. Samuel Johnson. The woman wanted to give her beloved dog a proper burial. Dr. Johnson allowed the woman to bury the animal in his apple orchard. This apple orchard grew into Hartsdale Canine Cemetery.

Though the name never officially changed, Hartsdale is now a cemetery for all types of pets, ranging from dogs and cats to birds and monkeys. Today, there are over 80,000 animals buried there, and 20 human beings who have opted to be buried alongside their pets. In 1997, the crematory branch of Hartsdale opened, allowing owners to choose between burial and cremation. Trail’s End was part of a wave of pet cemeteries and crematoriums that opened during the 70s and 80s. There are now more than 600 pet cemeteries in the U.S. according to the International Association of Pet Cemeteries, of which Hartsdale and, by extension, Trail’s End, are members.

I ask Jeff why he thinks there’s been a rise in the number of pet cremations, expecting an answer that deals with spirituality, the soul—whether or not something persists after we die. “It’s cheaper,” he replies.

***

While Jeff may have “gotten used” to the process of cremation, his clients occupy a very different headspace. Jeff remembers a crying kid who came into the office with a German shepherd earlier that week.

“It’s fine when it’s a kid,” he tells me. “Kids are allowed to cry.”Jeff holds adults to higher standards, but they, too, often end up crying in Beth’s office. Since World War II, there has been a rise in the number of people who consider pets their close kin. The website for the International Association of Pet Cemeteries includes sentimental phrases like, “as pet parents share their life with another living being who happens not to be human, they experience unconditional love and a relationship like no other.” The hotel magnate Leona Helmsley wrote her dog into her will, leaving 12 million dollars to Trouble, her Maltese. Today, having a pet is like having a kid, only without the lifetime commitment and the risk of under-appreciation.

One Trail’s End client, upon the death of his cat, kept its body in a hammock in his bedroom. The dead start to smell after a day. After three weeks, this man, who lived within walking distance of Trail’s End, hired a limousine service to bring him and his cat to the crematorium.

Another woman kept her dog’s corpse in her car and drove around with it for days before she was finally ready to say goodbye. The same woman, after losing her cat and its entire litter of kittens, mummified their bodies and placed the mummies in a storage unit.

Beth remembers a recent phone call with an elderly gentleman that lasted 30 minutes. The man on the other end was in tears because he had just lost his dog, who he said was all he had. The dog’s name was Mother.

While Jeff and I wait for the crematory to finish burning the bodies, a driver comes in with a fresh load of privates for the C500p. (The Trail’s End drivers go out four days a week to collect bodies from homes, veterinary clinics, pet stores, and the local humane society.) In this load, from a veterinary clinic, all the animals are encased in canary-yellow plastic bags. The tops of some of the bags are undone. In one, I am able to peer inside and see a medium-sized charcoal paw. As I move down the row of bags, the smell of roasting flesh from the crematory slowly gives way to the fetid scent of meat well past its prime. The smell gains force until I reach the final bag in the row. The top is untied. Inside is a floral print sheet with dark red stains. The stench and the blood make me shudder. Jeff grins.

“You get used to it,” he says. He notes that this bag’s contents should probably be cremated today.

Was there ever a time before Jeff was used to it, when he encountered something that was too gruesome for him to take? If you ask him, he says no. He has had to cremate dogs that have been hit by snowplows; half-rotten cats, dug up when owners decided to move; raccoons that have had their heads split open so their brain matter can be tested for rabies. Beth remembers a time when a dog came to them with a pacemaker. The pacemaker would explode if it went into the crematory, so Jeff had to cut open the animal and take it out himself. She says the only time she saw Jeff upset was when he had to deal with a military service dog on which a necropsy had been performed. The dog came to Trail’s End in three bags. The army wanted Jeff to make an impression of the dog’s paw in clay as a keepsake, but Jeff refused. I imagined he was upset by the dog’s undignified end, but according to Jeff, it was a matter of practicality. Taking the paw print would have been too messy, too much blood everywhere.

For Jeff, the hardest part is cremating his own animals, but even this is something to which he claims he has adjusted. On a shelf in his office is the urn he has selected for one of his current pets, Louie, a 22-pound Chihuahua cross. (Crossed with what remains a mystery. Louie and Jeff met at the animal shelter after the dog was found on the streets of Meriden with a giant hole in his head.) Louie’s urn is a sand colored figurine of a dog with the words “Beloved Pet” in a deep red font. Louie, when he passes, will go on the shelf in the kitchen with nine of the 11 other pets Jeff has cremated here at Trail’s End. The only animals missing from the shelf are a pair of cats, which his ex-wife took when she left. Jeff offers an explanation: “She went her way, and I went my way. Bye-bye.”

Jeff’s current wife, Tracy, does not want to deal with New England winters indefinitely. In five years, she and Jeff will move to Florida. Jeff says he won’t miss this place, referring to Trail’s End, and he doesn’t plan to get another job as a cremator once he’s moved. He doesn’t know what he’ll do. Life in Florida is just another thing to which he’ll have to adjust.

“Do you have any regrets?” I ask Jeff.

“Everybody has regrets,” he replies.

Jeff yelps when he burns one of his hands removing the bunny rabbit from the oven. He has discarded the gloves he was wearing earlier while loading bodies into the crematory. The tray glows orange as he lowers it to the floor. I can see an ashy white line on Jeff’s skin that marks where his hand came into contact with the metal. It’s going to leave a scar. When I peer into the tray, there’s nothing but bones.

When Jeff dies, he thinks it’s likely he’ll be cremated, though he points out that he won’t care; he’ll already be dead. Contrary to what one might expect, Jeff believes in Heaven and believes in the “Rainbow Bridge,” a beautiful meadow where dead pets and their owners meet before crossing into Heaven together. I’m surprised by Jeff’s faith.

“Why not?” he says in response to my incredulity. “It gives you a sense of peace.”

***

Jeff lets the bones cool for thirty minutes before putting them in the processor, which looks like a large metal cooking pot. When Jeff lifts the lid to throw in the bones, I can see a blade at the bottom. The processor works like a blender, grinding the bones into a coarse meal, which Jeff pours into a plastic bag. When he processes the bones of smaller animals like birds, rabbits, and snails, he places the remains in a container made from an empty plastic jug, and pounds the bones with a long metal pestle.

“And that’s that,” he says. “That’s what it all boils down to.”He places the bunny rabbit bag in my hand. I can see why one of the frequently asked questions listed on the Trail’s End website is “How do I know that the remains returned to me are actually my pet?” There’s not much left once the flesh and fur are gone.

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