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My dog died, and all I got was this lousy tote bag

Pets have become big business — in life and death. Does it make grieving them easier?

By Schuyler Velasco

The upsell began before she was gone.

I was standing in the emergency vet’s lobby, dripping snot and tears, signing the paperwork authorizing the vet to euthanize my corgi. Frankie, “Frank” for short, was 14, at the upper range of life expectancy for her breed. Even so, the end came fast. She took her usual glacially paced evening walk, then lost her balance and started yelping in pain. After a sleepless night and a morning of increasingly hopeless test results at the emergency vet, it was time to say goodbye.

“There’s no good time to do this, but…” the receptionist said, pushing a paper order form through the slot in the clear divider separating us. For $70, Frank would be cremated in a batch with other animals; I’d get a clay pawprint and a little certificate in the mail. For $200, she’d get a private cremation and the ashes would come in a tasteful bamboo box, plus some other “special touches.”

I shelled out the $200. The nerve, to even suggest she was mass grave material.

Would I like the box engraved for an extra $30? Fine. I scribbled “Frankie 2007-2021, Our best little dog,” on the form, then went to hold her one last time, in a back room outfitted with a couch and a box of tissues.

A week later, a courier delivered the cremains to our house along with the promised “special touches,” each more unsettling than the last. The bamboo box was tasteful, as advertised. But the delivery also included a packet of wildflower seeds, a paw-shaped gold lapel pin with a halo around it, a framed copy of the “Rainbow Bridge” poem, a clay mold of her pawprint (sometimes I think about the person whose job it is to make those), and a tote bag. A bad one, too, with stiff material, flimsy handles, and the branding for the pet crematorium — named “Forget-Me-Not” — emblazoned in purple on the side.

The package left me even more depressed. I hadn’t thought of Frankie’s death as a merchandising opportunity, but here I was. Was a tacky lapel pin supposed to make me feel better? Was I to haul the tote bag to the grocery store, and recommend Forget-Me-Not’s funereal services to the curious? (Stranger: Where’d you get that tote? Me: With my dead dog’s ashes!)

I hadn’t thought of Frankie’s death as a merchandising opportunity, but here I was.

It felt like too much, but not enough. Frankie had been with me since college, a ladylike yet goofy fixture through several major life transitions. She was great at parties and a deep well of patience when grabby toddlers invaded her household. Our dog walker liked Frank so much, she’d keep her at her house when we went on vacation, rarely billing me for it unless I insisted. She deserved more than the unmarked backyard burials my family pets got when I was growing up, but I wasn’t sure this was it.

My bereavement swag bag is a byproduct of the decades-long rise of pets as an economic and cultural force. Experts cite a number of factors: Millennials delaying parenthood and spending their time and money on animals instead, empty-nest boomers with disposable income, more specialized veterinary care, dog memes. In 2020, before COVID-19 and its swell of pet adoptions, the U.S. pet industry was worth about $99 billion, according to the American Pet Products Association.

By the end of 2021, U.S. spending on pets is expected to surpass $103 billon — more than consumers spent in either the liquor or candy industries, says Phillip Cooper, an industry consultant. Mars, Inc., he points out, has recently been divesting from candy and investing in manufacturing pet food and buying up veterinary practices.

It makes sense, then, that pet “aftercare” services, to use the industry euphemism, are booming too. Pet cemeteries, urns and grave markers, once novelties, are now commonplace. “I’ve also seen an increase in ‘end of life’ consultations for pet parents,” Cooper says, including veterinarians offering grief counseling over the phone for a fee. Swag abounds. On Etsy, a search for “pet remembrance gift” yields over 30,000 customizable products, from bracelet charms to scented candles and Christmas tree ornaments.

I saw this evolution unfold in real time. My parents are both retired veterinarians; my dad, Ed Velasco, ran his own small-animal practice for 40 years. As a kid in the 1990s, I’d wander around his clinic, giving wide berth to the deep freezer where dead animals awaited burial or cremation — mostly burial at that time. “If you had two cremations a year, that would have been a lot. It wasn’t commonly available,” he tells me.

Most owners, including my family, buried their pets with minimal ceremony. At home we had a lot of animals, and they died fairly regularly — from old age or untimely, violent, occasionally absurd causes. A canary got eaten by the cat. The cat got caught in a garage door. Once, a surprise Florida cold snap froze a flock of my mom’s caged outdoor parakeets; we found them stuck upright on their perches, like a row of tiny popsicles. Toward the tail end of this run of carnage — starting in the year 2000, with an old shepherd mix named Red who had avoided such mishaps to live out the natural course of his life — we started cremating.

Now private cremations — which my dad says about 95% of his clients opt for — are standard. That extra care and consideration runs parallel to the increased personal importance pets have in our lives. It’s common to liken a pet’s death to the loss of a member of the family, a best friend, or even a child. Cooper, the pet industry consultant, says 17% of dog owners have a provision in their will for their dog, and 35% name a guardian or caretaker in the event of their death.

I loved Frankie with abandon. But my upbringing left me with a more old-school view of the appropriate pet-owner relationship, both in life and death. When I called Frankie my best friend, I meant it in the dog way, not the person way. Comparing pets to children is an impulse I’ve always found darkly perverse, because it frames the completely natural occurrence of an animal dying before its owner as a heartbreak beyond the realm of grief we should be able to bear.

Even so, the modern playbook for grieving a pet helped me through in some ways. I held Frankie as she died — a final kindness that wasn’t standard years ago, my dad says, but that owners largely expect and insist upon now. When I shared news of her passing on social media, the outpouring of support was immense. People I hadn’t talked to in years shared memories of Frankie chewing up shoes, ambling around my college apartment, or playing with their dogs, also now gone. Others sent sympathy cards in the mail and had ice cream delivered to our house. Friends I’d first met at a new (human) moms’ support group gifted a memorial stone painted with a silhouette of a corgi and Frankie’s years of life painted on it.

Then, about three weeks after she died, the weirdest — and best — “special touch” arrived in the mail: Pillow Frank. A group of my oldest, closest friends had taken a particularly goofy photo of her from my Instagram feed and sent it to the Etsy merchant Sleepwishes, which screen-printed a 3-D rendering onto a more or less life-size throw pillow. When I opened the package, I started bawling, then laughing. It was a fitting remembrance of how she was in life: a little weird, a lot cute, and largely content to hang out next to her people while they watched TV.

Like the real Frank did, Pillow Frank mostly stays in the living room, making me smile whenever I look at her — which is precisely how I prefer to remember my (dog) best friend. I’ll probably move her out of sight when we get another dog.

I gave the tote bag to my 2-year-old, the only member of our family too young to really remember Frankie. She uses it to cart around her alphabet letters.

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Schuyler Velasco is Experience’s senior editor.

Illustration by Lorenzo Gritti

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