Canine Cremains

Photo: Kippelboy

Because I have owned many dogs, I have many containers of what remains of them. Without meaning to, I’ve become a hoarder of canine cremains.

When one of my dogs dies, the vet will ask me how I wish to dispose of the deceased. I am at that moment of two minds. One is abject and hysterical grief. The other is: I want to get home as fast as I can, cry, and drink a lot of bourbon. So I pretty much say yes to any options the vet offers, and then I run out the door.

If I lived on a farm in a rural area, I could dig a hole in the ground and bury the dog, but I can’t think of anything I’d rather do less. Living in suburbia, the options are more limited. I can have the dog cremated with a bunch of other dead dogs or have the dog cremated separately, after which the facility sweeps its ashes into a pretty urn or wooden box. It arrives a few weeks later with a heartfelt note and a sentimental poem. 

Although I know it doesn’t really matter, I always choose the private cremation, which is far more expensive than the group rate, where you get nothing back except a bill.

I like to think I do this out of respect for the dogs, but because I have respected such a slew of them over the years, I now have tins, boxes, and urns filled with their ashes all over the place. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t remember which dog is in what container. I’m sure the bullmastiffs are in the XXL ones, and the French bulldogs are in the medium size ones. The bulldogs and bull terriers, I have no idea. Even when I open the lids and stare at the contents, they all look the same. Once they were brindle or fawn or white or pied. Now they are gray dust.

The situation had become so cumbersome and morbid that I recently made a decision to “release” them. Many years ago, when I first moved to Redding, Connecticut, I bought a grave plot at the ancient and spooky Umpawaug Cemetery. Why, at age thirty, I felt the pressing need for a grave, I have no idea, but the deed is in my safe deposit box.

Not long ago, on a moonless night, I drove to the burial grounds. Even during the day the Umpawaug Cemetery has a New England, Nathanial Hawthorne creepiness about it. At night it’s downright scary. Alone I plodded around looking for my little piece of property. I couldn’t find it. I seemed to remember that I was above the Dos Santos and across from Stuart Chase, who was in FDR’s administration. It wasn’t. I tried another spot, about fifteen paces beyond the folk singer Mary Travers’s grave, but I still couldn’t find my plot. In my frustration, I figured I would just open the containers and gently place the contents on the ground. It warmed me that most people in Redding have or like dogs.

From an old L. L. Bean tote bag in the backseat of my car, I took out ten containers and walked with them into the night. The plan was to remove the lids and empty them at once. I rested them on the hard ground and, without warning, a stiff wind kicked up, blowing the tins over and scattering the gray dust all over me. It went up my nose. I inhaled quite a bit of dog. I sneezed, blew my nose, and spit out what was in my mouth. The front of my shirt and jeans were caked with cremains. But I still had more tins in the car, so I gathered up the empties and walked back to get the rest.

At this point I’d given up trying to find my grave, so I just took out the tins, stood next to my Subaru, removed the lids, and placed them on the hood of the car. Again, a breeze blew and the contents swept into my car’s interior and all over me. This time most of the cremains got in my eyes. I was wearing contact lenses. The grit and infinitesimal bits of bones were excruciatingly painful. I stumbled around, raking at my eyes, found a half a can of Pepsi in the car, and washed my face with it. My eyes began to clear and I got in the car and drove home.

In the rearview mirror I looked at myself. The Pepsi had mixed with the ashes, and I was caked in what looked like brown earth. I looked like a Hopi Mudhead Kachina Doll. I started to wonder what would eventually become of little Ivy, a mutt I rescued from a shelter; or Cecil, my perennially worried French bulldog, with his phobia of feet. As I got to my driveway, I relaxed into a wonderful flash of nostalgia for Gus, my biggest bullmastiff, and the former resident of the largest can of cremains. Gus liked nothing better than to wallow in a mud puddle. The memory made me smile.

Jane Stern is the author of more than forty books, including Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself by Becoming an EMT. She is the canine editor of Departures and one of the Daily’s correspondents. With Michael Stern, she coauthored the popular Roadfood guidebook series. The Jane and Michael Stern Collection, comprising forty years of their research materials, is on permanent display at the Smithsonian.

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