Local pet owners now may take their beloved cremated pets with them to their graves, at least in Forest Lawn and its three suburban cemeteries.
And that means more than the obvious dogs and cats. Forest Lawn soon will become home to the cremated remains of birds and fish, rabbits and turtles, gerbils and hamsters and other pets, President Joseph P. Dispenza expects.
Forest Lawn becomes the first not-for-profit cemetery in the state to permit the pet burials following recent state legislation that authorized the practice, the Forest Lawn Group announced Monday afternoon. Officials emphasized, though, that pets' bodies cannot be buried, only their cremated remains.
At a time when new cremations now outnumber regular body burials in Erie County, Forest Lawn and other cemeteries find they have to tweak their business models to thrive and survive.
"The Forest Lawn Group is always looking to expand the opportunities to stay relevant," Dispenza said. "This is another opportunity to make the cemeteries relevant to certain lot owners or potential lot owners."
As Dispenza said of people with strong bonds with their pets, "In many cases, their pets are their family."
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the new Pet Burial Law in September, after state legislators had approved the measure in June. Before the new law, New York State's cemetery regulations had prohibited the burial of cremated pets in human cemeteries. The law allows -- but does not require -- cemeteries to allow pet interments.
During the debate over the new law, supporters claimed that 62 percent of American households include a pet.
Forest Lawn officials, under Dispenza's direction, moved quickly to apply the law to the group's four local cemeteries, including the large facility in Buffalo, Williamsville Cemetery, Lakeside in Hamburg and St. Matthew's in West Seneca. Together they have a total of nearly 250,000 people interred there.
Dispenza, who follows pending state legislation closely, has been working on the concept for the last year, and Forest Lawn has made this practice available for 30 days.
"I knew this was coming, so we spent a lot of advance time thinking this through," he said. "I believe there are many people who have expressed to us that they want that option. So we wanted to get ahead of it."
The process also took some time even after the new law took effect.
"Our rules and regulations had to be amended, and that amendment had to be approved by the governing body for cemeteries in New York State," said Mark DePalma, Forest Lawn's marketing and communications director.
Forest Lawn officials said that a pet's cremated remains cannot be buried in the same casket as its owner, but such an urn could be buried in the same grave.
And the new practice is retroactive in a sense. As long as a family affirms that the animal was the lot owner's pet, a small section of a grave may be dug up to insert the urn, just as cemetery workers do with a spouse's cremated remains.
The facility will not charge a separate grave fee. But under the law, Dispenza explained, 100 percent of all other fees associated with the burial of cremated pets must be put in the cemetery's permanent maintenance fund.
"So any revenue derived from pet burials will go directly to the long-term maintenance of our cemeteries, which helps us to keep our sacred promise to provide the finest in perpetual care to all those who rest within our gates," Dispenza stated.
The new policy also provides another benefit for families. Once the pet's cremains are buried, anyone can look it up online on the Forest Lawn website's "Locate a Loved One" section, under the pet's name, such as Fido Smith or Rocco Jones.