Personal Essays

In the Realm of the Oak Queen

A generation ago, the death of a pet prompted heartbreak, but the burial may have been a simple backyard affair. Pet funerals these days are going upscale, and one New York pet crematorium sets a shining example.

For many, the idea of pet funerals brings back childhood memories of shaded backyard graves, with only a cross of sticks or perhaps the departed’s name chalked on an old paving slate added as a monument. As solemn and affecting as these early bereavement rituals are, though, such traditions might be going the way of Currier & Ives sleigh scenes. Earlier this year, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association released its 2006 pet spending projections and the results were mind-boggling. According to the APPMA, by the end of the year Americans will have spent $15.2 billion for food, $9.4 billion for veterinarian care, $9.3 billion for supplies and over-the-counter medications, $1.8 billion for live animal purchases, and $2.7 billion for other services. In this last category funerals and cremations factor more than a little, and no one would know more about the good, as well as the darker, aspects of this industry than Andrea Walker, assistant manager and cruelty investigator for the upstate New York Columbia-Greene Humane Society and co-owner, with her mother Karen Walker, of Buddy’s Place pet crematorium.

As may be fitting to the emerging form of pet services, there is nothing funereal about Andrea’s appearance. In her early 30s and strikingly attractive, with multiple ear piercings and elegant tattoos of forget-me-nots and Sanskrit on both wrists, she looks far more like a stylish Pixies fan than the rookish morticians often envisioned bedecked in black top hat and cravat. Nor does Buddy’s Place possess any of the squalid atmosphere of the dreaded knacker’s yard. Located in the rolling farmlands of the middle Hudson Valley, the crematorium is just minutes from both the Merchant and Ivory Foundation, an arts group, and the early 18th-century Luykas Van Alen house, which was used as a filming site for Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. The area has been likened to the pheasant-filled parklands of pre-war England, and driving from Albany down to Columbia County, I remember why this portion of the Hudson Valley has become the ideal spot for wealthy urbanites wishing to fulfill fantasies of Edwardian gentrification.

Andrea and I meet at a homemade ice-cream stand, unfortunately closed for the Jewish New Year. Two of her pet dogs are snarfling around the back seat of her car, and she tells me that the bulldog, Sadie, recently had surgery for a titanium kneecap. As I ponder what it’d be like to have super-hero knees, Andrea says she has to make a couple stops before we visit Buddy’s Place. Between the humane society, cruelty investigations, and the crematorium, she’s in constant motion, usually with live or dead animals in tow. Today she’s trying to finalize a cremation contract with a local veterinarian, and she makes sure to bring a box of doughnut holes, bagels, and a Buddy’s Place magnet as gifts for the office. Whether it’s aluminum siding, pharmaceuticals, magazine subscriptions, or animal cremation contracts, salesmanship is the same everywhere, and Andrea gets a partial victory when the receptionist tells her the vet will be sending cats to Buddy’s Place, though the higher-priced dogs will still go to another cremator who the vet’s done business with for years. Curious about the eternal feline-canine rivalry, I ask whether she gets more business from cat or dog people.

Between the humane society, cruelty investigations, and the crematorium, she’s in constant motion, usually with live or dead animals in tow.“It’s really about 50-50. If we get more dogs, it’s probably because we tend to get a lot of big dogs that the owners physically can’t move or bury by themselves.” The Walkers also have trouble with the bigger animals, and a third partner at Buddy’s Place, Ehren Melius—not present but described by Karen as “skinny but strong” with Hunter Thompson’s “Gonzo” symbol tattooed on a forearm—does the heaviest lifting.

From there we make a short drive to the Columbia-Greene shelter. The Hudson Valley is at its autumnal finest, with the air so clear that each yellowing leaf each seems encased in glass. As we drive, Andrea tells me it’s a good thing we’re going to the shelter because I can compare the retired cremator there with the one she has at Buddy’s Place.

“Believe me, you have to see the difference,” she says shaking her head.

Set along a dirt road running between hay fields, the shelter consists of numerous buildings. The main office, kennels, and cat rooms are cheery enough, but space limitations have forced the shelter to use several outbuildings as well. A couple of them are little more than grim concrete sheds, and it’s in one of these that the decrepit incinerator squats.

“Get ready to get creeped,” Andrea warns as we approach the former crematorium. Thick vines have grown over the main doorway and we have to squeeze down a mildewy passage between sheds to get to a side entrance. The dingy, unlit and unheated room is completely dominated by the massive incinerator. I gape at the rusted-out machine, little more than a hulking square oven, until Andrea attracts my attention to an even more ominous sight.

“See these medical waste containers? Now we just store them here until another incineration service comes to pick them up but we also used to burn those in the oven. A lot of crematoriums do this, people ones as well as pets. Incinerating medical waste is a big money maker for anyone with an incinerator.” As she explains, most of the county humane societies are so chronically short of funding that taking in medical waste is a matter of necessity. No one likes it but the choices are rarely good in this field. Desperately lacking in resources, shelters are often forced to choose between refusing to accept more animals, overcrowding and the subsequent danger of disease for those they do accept, or euthanasia, all of which hit the public nerve. As unappealing as most find the idea of incinerating medical waste, it can be a key source of income for the financially strapped shelters.

“Cremations used to be the rite of passage for new staffers,” Andrea tells me as we walk around the machine. “We were all in our early 20s, so you know, we all thought we were bad asses. In winter we’d lean against the incinerator and smoke cigarettes while it was running to freak new people out. We didn’t know the incinerator wasn’t supposed to create smoke, never mind the chimney fires.

“You definitely need a sense of humor for this,” she adds, and Andrea has that in abundance. Returning a follow-up call later in the week, she hoots over her cell, “Guess what we’ve got in the van now?” It turns out to be a 115-pound dog that had been euthanized for aggressive behavior, then exhumed from the owner’s yard and decapitated in order to check the brain tissue for rabies. If that seems bad, Andrea’s duties as cruelty investigator defy the limits of tolerance. Frequently called out to investigate country squalor at its white-trash worst, she relates incidents of starved farm animals, unwanted kittens boxed and roasted alive in a burn barrel, or cancerous dogs frozen to the winter ground by their own burst tumors, all as incidents of sickening routine. The oven’s menace seems pallid in comparison, until we look inside.

The incinerator door has been rusted shut, and we have to slam the squealing handles open. The inner brick lining inside has crumbled to dust, and a crumbly hole gapes in the center of the floor, directly where most of the copses would lie. Looming in the far back are the rib bones of a small animal. Rags of scorched fur still cling to the skeleton.

“In winter we’d lean against the incinerator and smoke cigarettes while it was running to freak new people out.”“That’s a body,” Andrea informs me with a depressed sigh. “We couldn’t finish the cremation because the flooring collapsed and now there’s no way anyone can get it out. One time there was a malfunction and a burning body fell through the back of the incinerator into the inner machinery. That could have set the whole incinerator on fire the next time we used it, so one of us, a girl, waited until everything was cooled down, then crawled inside the oven and got the body. That really took courage.” Dangers like these are just some of the reasons the shelter no longer uses the oven and is now forced to outsource its cremations, yet another strain on the depleted budget.

Looking into the raggedy shadows within the oven, with God knows how many needle fragments or other pieces of medical detritus hidden in the murk, I can only shudder at the thought of crawling into that place. It’s similar to the welling claustrophobia I felt standing inside a chilled prison cell at Terezin, the Nazis’ surreal “model concentration camp” outside Prague. Beginning to freak out, I’m more than ready to escape the crematorium.

Blinking against the mellow September sun, a white dog in an open enclosure silently watches us when we emerge from the passageway. The dog is as placid as the chopped fields and brushy hillsides which surround the shelter, and going from the incinerator shed into the warm afternoon is like traveling from the Celtic barrow of the Holly King, the deceiver chieftain of death and misrule, to the realm of the Oak King, whose reign of light and renewal begins during the long darkness of the winter solstice. Good dog.

Andrea has insisted that Buddy’s Place is completely different than the shelter crematorium, and that’s no lie. Despite the lateness of the season, rose bushes, blossom-filled trellises, and immaculately kept gardens surround the crematorium. Karen Walker greets me in the gravel parking area just steps from a small pond containing a fountain and a big-lipped carp named Mick Jagger. A twinkling yet matter-of-fact person, Karen says with a laugh that the rest of the Stones will soon be joining Mick in the splashing waters.

Inside, Buddy’s Place is divided in half, with an airy office on one side and the incinerator and walk-in freezer for cadavers on the other. Smelling lightly of nag champa incense, with a futon couch and glass-fronted woodstove along the wall, the office also doubles as display area for urns and other containers for “cremains,” as Andrea refers to the ashes. Customers are able to select from among tin canisters of varying sizes and designs, hefty brass urns, granite headstones, and some especially nice handcrafted octagonal wooden boxes. The cremains are given to clients in the container of their choice, along a satin drawstring bag printed with “forget-me-not,” a freshly cut bouquet of flowers, and, if the owners have requested, a hardened clay paw print of the deceased. It’s also common that flowers be placed alongside the pet inside the incinerator if the owner is present for the cremation; as Andrea will emphasize throughout the day, whether the deceased is human or not, providing dignity and ritual to death is important. From the pictures of pets and thankful letters sent by past clients, it’s obvious such ritual is appreciated.

Viewing the thought that the Walkers put into their office, I can’t help but think of the word “caretaker.” Whether it’s the flower gardens and fountain outside, the selection of urns, or even the traditional comfort of the woodstove in the office, care is intrinsic to every aspect of Buddy’s Place, but never quite so much as when I witness an actual cremation. Anyone believing such consideration in the pet funeral industry is typical, however, would be sadly disappointed.

The inspiration for Buddy’s Place is the thing of nightmares. When Karen Walker’s aged basset hound, Buddy, was euthanized at home in the mid-’90s, she asked the attending vet to have the body cremated so she could scatter the ashes. Like most veterinary clinics, this one outsourced cremations to incineration specialists, but in Buddy’s case the specialist was a scam artist named Terence McGlashan. With his silken manners and impeccable suits, McGlashan appeared every inch the professional mortician, but instead of cremating the cadavers, he paid a dairy farmer to dump them in a pit not far from horsy Saratoga Springs. The unsuspecting pet owners were given ordinary wood ashes, though anyone who’s ever seen human or pet cremains would know that no matter how finely sifted, a few tiny shards of bone are always present. When the police discovered McGlashan’s scam, more than 40,000 animal corpses from three different states were exhumed from the reeking pasture. Adding to the horror was McGlashan’s sideline: medical waste incineration. Internal organs, surgically removed tumors, and hypodermic needles were strewn throughout the pit. The police and the state wildlife pathologist sorted through the grisly corpses’ identifying tags in order to inform as many of McGlashan’s clients as possible what had happened to their pets, and McGlashan eventually served a six-month sentence for fraud. But that was little consolation to the Walkers, who were inspired to create a pet crematorium and funeral service that provided everything they’d been denied by McGlashan: the clean, respectful, and dignified service any beloved companion deserves. This was also why they refuse to use their facility for any medical waste no matter how profitable that aspect of the incineration business is.

For better or worse, Karen tells me in the office, this day’s cremation will be a messy one. It’s a 14-year-old golden retriever that died of natural causes. The elderly owner had trouble with the body, though, and the retriever had been stuck in the furnace of his car trunk for a full day before a vet performed an autopsy and turned the corpse over to the Walkers.

“Do you have a strong stomach?” Andrea asks before we go through the door into the crematorium. Raised on a dairy farm a few miles up the road and having witnessed the usual hog slaughters and chicken killings, I truthfully tell her yes. Still, one can’t help but wonder what’s beyond the threshold.

What I find, however, is an incinerator and workspace that are shinier that many antique automobile garages. The metal siding of the oven glistens and the bleached floor with the drain in the center is spotless. Stacked shelving units with carefully labeled boxes line the wall, along with a tie-dyed Woodstock ‘94 banner that Karen received after working the festival as an EMT. From directly in front, the open incinerator looks just like a behemoth pizza oven. Lined inside with brick (which handles the heat and fiery body fluids far better than steel) and run on propane, the oven is capable of reaching upward of 2,000 degrees. Buddy’s Place has been affected by high fuel prices just like everyone else, and Andrea says running the incinerator costs about $32 an hour. Considering that cremations often take three hours to complete, even for cats, this is no small expense. A tall chimney rises from the center of the incinerator, though special cooling chambers within the stainless-steel body make for a smokeless incineration.

Passing the industrial grade processor used for grinding and sifting ashes, Andrea opens the freezer door to show several dogs and a newly arrived cat that are waiting for cremation. There’s also a foal that was too big for the oven and is waiting transportation to another crematorium. Looking at the cadavers, I can feel myself mentally distancing; these aren’t pet cats, dogs or colts, they’re used space on icy metal shelves. It’s too easy to forget those used spaces all have names.

Whether the deceased is human or not, providing dignity and ritual to death is important.What’s amazing about the Walkers, however, is that they haven’t surrendered to that numbness despite their everyday familiarity with death. The retriever is laid on a tarp on top of a raised stretcher, and Karen is right, this one is pretty bad. The body reeks and maggots squirm everywhere, but still, time is taken to press the paw twice into the clay so the owner gets a clear print. As the corpse is carefully rolled into the oven, Karen, teary-eyed, murmurs to the retriever, promising that next time will be better. Visibly horrified by the larvae, Andrea is bleaching the floor the moment the oven door closes. “Fucking maggots,” she curses, and the Hollywood cliché of the calloused undertaker happily eating lunch among corpses goes out the window. Whether it’s Andrea shivering at the thought of the maggots or Karen’s sincere promises of something better next time, it’s plain that what these women do isn’t easy for them but that they do it because the owners and the animals require and deserve this effort of love. Pressing buttons on the oven and hauling the tarp out into the sun, they are the Oak Queens at their heartrending work, giving ritual to even the littlest creatures as they inspire light from the bottomlands of death and bereavement.

Wanting some space, I go around back to check the chimney. There’s no smoke or smell whatsoever, just a plume of heat emanating from the top of the stack, and any thoughts that animals might avoid the funereal location turn out to be nothing more than superstitious fabrications. Birds fly nearby, monarch butterflies bounce among the red blossoms, and neighboring dogs stroll the fence line, their only obvious concern my meandering presence near their turf.

The afternoon doesn’t hit home until I’m driving back to Albany. Imagined or not, I can’t get the smell of the maggots out of my sweater. There’s no way to avoid brooding on morbid churchyard images and I picture what I’ll write on my cat’s headstone when the time comes: He Was My Friend. Human, canine, feline, equine, whatever: No matter how many legs it possesses, companionship can never be diminished. A testament to the importance of memory, a refutation of the potter’s field and its merciless anonymity, and the actual ground where caretakers travail, Buddy’s Place is everybody’s place in the end.

Donate: American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals


Tobias Seamon recently published the novella The Fair Grounds. More can be found here. More by Tobias Seamon