Alexandra Manno was 16 when her boyfriend at the time gave her a surprise gift: a dog, which she named Calle.
A pit bull mix that appeared to have some Australian cattle dog in her bloodline, Calle slept with Manno every night, moving with her from North Carolina to the Seattle area, where she now works as a public defender.
“She’s been with me through college, law school, all my boyfriends,” said Manno, now 31.
Nobody in Manno’s life bore such intimate witness to her path to adulthood and self-sufficiency. So last year, when it became apparent that Calle was sick and needed to be put down, a tearful adieu at the veterinarian’s office would not quite cut it.
A friend of Manno’s told her about a pet funeral home in West Seattle called Resting Waters, opened in December 2016 in a low-slung brown building across from a popular deli by Joslin Roth, 39, and Darci Bernard, 34, who are sisters.
Its name succinctly describes the process, known as alkaline hydrolysis (or aquamation), by which it puts pets to rest.
Aquamation is a water-based alternative to flame-based cremation. An animal’s corpse is placed in a nylon bag, followed by a multipartition metal contraption (“like Tetris,” Bernard said) and then a tank filled with heated water, potassium hydroxide and occasionally sodium, which breaks down tissue while preserving bones, microchips and the like.
The process, which sounds and smells like a large-capacity dishwasher cycle, typically takes about 19 hours and usually involves the submersion of several pets at once. Resting Waters’ aquamation machine can hold up to 400 pounds, while larger machines can accommodate 2,000-pound animals, including livestock. The bones are then dried in a closet with a dehumidifier, and delivered to pet owners in urns or whatever method they specify.
The interior of Resting Waters is cleanly appointed, with paintings of animals gracing the walls. There are cozy pet beds arranged beneath a desk, and the music is meditative and relaxing. For a pet, it’s like “you’re going to your last spa day,” said Rhonda Krider, 44, who had her dog, Hunter, laid to rest there.
Like its counterparts on the human side of the death care industry, Resting Waters offers a range of afterlife services, some of which it contracts out to third parties. If you want a locket of your pet’s hair shorn and preserved, Resting Waters can handle that for you. If you want your pet groomed for a viewing or ceremony before it is placed in the tank, that can be arranged as well.
Manno, who said, “I was just obsessed with my dog, I’d had her forever,” made a slideshow featuring portraits of Calle and eulogized her dog before several guests, who were treated to snacks and wine.
“After that, I taxidermed the paws,” she said.
And then there are the truly special requests.
“We had a woman come in and make us drink shots with her,” said Roth, who, like her sister, eschews the Brylcreem and suits of traditional funeral directors for nose piercings and tattoos.
Roth started Resting Waters after she came to the realization that, in Seattle, “you could do stand-up paddleboard yoga with your dog but couldn’t visit a death care provider. With pet death care, you’d leave your pet at the vet and they’d literally dispose of them in garbage bags. It was like, ‘Whoa, this was a need.’”
After several decades as a television executive, Jerry Shevick came to a similar conclusion before opening Peaceful Pets Aquamation in Newbury Park, California, in 2013.
“We have six dogs and I did a pet show on TV once, so I knew from a population standpoint that this is an industry — the total pet space — that grows 3% to 4% every year, even through the last recession,” said Shevick, 59. “A lot of the spending increases are about people wanting better and more services and options.”
Along these lines, Roth said, “these days, with veterinary care, we do for pets exactly what we do with humans.”
Bernard chimed in, “They put pacemakers in dogs.”
Shevick also extolled the virtues of aquamation as an environmentally friendly alternative to flame-based cremation.
“People don’t think about cremation like they do all the big carbon producers, but in actuality, it has a pretty significant footprint,” he said. Conversely, he said that aquamation “really uses the same components that natural decomposition uses. With people paying attention to climate change, it’s becoming more interesting to people as well.”
California and Washington are among the nearly 20 states that have recently legalized aquamation as a means of dealing with human corpses. But unlike the heavily regulated human death care industry, the pet one “is the Wild West,” said Roth, and thus far more lightly regulated.
Occasionally, though, someone seeking to open an aquamation facility will have difficulty convincing wastewater-treatment officials that the process is sufficiently pure. Still, it’s a lot easier to open an aquamation facility these days than a flame-based crematory.
If you buy an aquamation machine in the United States, it will likely have been manufactured by Bio-Response Solutions, a small, family-owned company in Indiana. Samantha Sieber, 36, a founder and the vice president of research who also handles regulatory and legislative issues, estimates that the company has sold some 150 pet-aquamation machines throughout the United States. (Bio-Response Solutions also has several clients in Europe, where alkaline hydrolysis has been around a lot longer.)
“A lot of my customers got turned down to put a crematorium in,” Sieber said. “If they’re in residential or downtown areas, they would never allow the emissions. The public perception of a smokestack and fire risk, they’re not going to let that happen. You don’t have any of that with alkaline hydrolysis.”