One recent afternoon, three grieving families stopped by Flintoft's Funeral Home in Issaquah to make arrangements for lost loved ones, when...

Share story

One recent afternoon, three grieving families stopped by Flintoft’s Funeral Home in Issaquah to make arrangements for lost loved ones, when all of a sudden their ears picked up on the sound of jingling dog tags. Before long — with their consent — the friskiest member of Flintoft’s staff was at their feet: Belle, an unassuming, 8-year-old Jack Russell terrier that owner Tom Flintoft calls the home’s unofficial grief counselor.

For many, Belle’s waddling presence creates a calming effect. “She goes around and greets everybody,” Flintoft says. “But she always seems to know who needs her the most. She’ll lie down at their feet and go to sleep.”

Across the country, those in the death-care business are finding that wagging tails and ringing tags can be a source of comfort for grieving clients. People loosen up, talk about their own pets. A four-legged package of unconditional love can bring a pack of suits and dresses to its knees.

With research supporting the benefits of therapy-trained dogs for everyone from cancer patients to traumatized schoolchildren, the notion of pets’ ability to soothe is taking root in funeral homes, cemeteries and other such places.

Sometimes the effort is conscious, with funeral directors and business owners employing vest-clad, therapy-certified dogs. For others, it’s pure paws-and-effect happenstance, when animal lovers bring their pets to work and find them a valuable part of the team.

For Flintoft, it was the latter. “Funeral homes can be stuffy, do you know what I mean?” he says. “We try to be a little more relaxed, to make people feel like family.”

Originally, Belle was meant to stay upstairs in the office, but she began letting herself out through a loosely locked door. “Ninety-eight percent of people think it’s great,” Flintoft says. “It just sorta happened.”

Holding on to Derek

At jointly owned Hillcrest-Flynn Pet Funeral Home and Hillcrest Memorial Park in Hermitage, Pa., a golden retriever named Derek has inspired several funeral-home directors nationwide who now have, or plan to have, therapy-trained dogs as part of their signature services. “Everything we do, he’s part of it,” says owner Tom Flynn.

Derek, 9, got his training through Canine Companions for Independence seven years ago and has done duty around the country, including a post-Sept. 11 stint with kids who’d lost elders in the World Trade Center collapse. Now he peacefully glides up to clients, stopping short of nosing them in the arm like other dogs might.

“A person can come in and be upset about something, and all of a sudden this big golden retriever is there,” Flynn says. “And if they extend their hand, he’s just happy as a clam.”

At visitations, Derek sits off to the side, where mourners can approach if they wish. Some, Flynn says, will take his leash and have him accompany them to the casket.

For grieving people who are animal friendly, something as simple as petting a dog or cat can reduce heart rates and lower blood pressure.

“When a person is in grief, there’s a certain amount of stress going on,” says Cindy Ehlers, president of Animal Assisted Crisis Response, a national organization. “Grief, like trauma, can cause isolation. Dogs can break that isolation.”

The International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA) is optimistic about the practice, asking funeral directors with such dogs to present at its conferences. “Anything that helps a person during that time of grief … is a wonderful thing,” says ICCFA president Paul Elvig, general manager of Seattle’s Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park and Funeral Home. “It’s a very progressive idea.”

Some kitty comfort

Naturally, cats must have their say. For that, we go to Memorial Gallery, a cremation-urn business based in Michelle Bailey’s North Seattle home.

When clients come to her showroom, Bailey entertains with espresso while her cat, Emma Mae, finds someone to snuggle up to. “People come, and all of a sudden there she is,” Bailey says. “I can count on her to be part of the comfort — because she’s just there for the lovin’.”

When two women came in earlier this month, one of them mourning her late husband, Emma Mae approached the grieving widow and announced herself with a meow.

Did she know that the woman once owned three cats? Was she drawn by her cat-design socks? Or could she somehow sense that the woman had just lost her husband of 30 years to a long battle with cancer?

The widow and her friend sat on fat leather sofas and examined Bailey’s offerings — the artsy urns atop the mantle and adjoining sills, the biodegradable vessels set out for display, a jewelry tree dangling cremains-ready pendants. Hmmm. What looked the best? the widow wondered. What was most practical? What smaller vials would best lend themselves to a surreptitious scattering at her husband’s beloved Dodger Stadium?

All the while, Emma Mae sat in her lap, a gray-orange splotch of cuddly fur, as the woman absent-mindedly stroked her around the ears.

Did it help that she was there? “Absolutely,” says the widow’s friend, visiting from Austin. “If you’re an animal person, it’s totally comforting. Animals and people connect.”

For recent Memorial Gallery client Jeri Campbell, who last summer lost Bunn, her cat of nearly 20 years, the process of picking out the proper urn for Bunn brought back her sense of loss. “It’s still difficult,” she says. But with Emma Mae there, “it was like, wow,” she says. “I immediately connected. I jokingly suggested to my husband, I think she was channeling Bunn.”

Pets get fan mail

Some homes tout their pets on Web sites and in Yellow Pages ads. At Krause Funeral Homes and Cremation Services in the Milwaukee area, owner Mark Krause has featured Portuguese water dog Oliver on trading cards, which he gives to kids complete with paw-print stamp. And, like other dogs, Oliver even gets thank-you notes and Christmas cards. “He’s got his little wall of fan mail,” Krause says.

He remembers a little boy who’d lost his grandfather and wasn’t doing well. “As soon as Oliver came in, this little boy latched on to him and started talking about how he felt,” Krause says. “And for that couple of hours that he was there, that little boy didn’t leave his side.”

As a therapy-certified dog, Oliver wears an official vest. “It tells people he’s a working dog,” Krause says. “He’s not just a dog wearing a sweater. He’s a professional.”

At Fern Hill Cemetery north of Aberdeen, owner David Bielski has kept dogs — from cocker spaniels to Australian shepherds — in the office for the last 25 years. “They all bring their own personalities,” he says. Though none have had formal training, he says, “I think most dogs… can sense when someone needs comfort.”

These business owners recognize that dogs and cats aren’t for everybody. At Flintoft’s in Issaquah, Belle knows to head upstairs when the doorbell rings. She’ll sit at the top of the landing and await a cue.

But once given the OK, she’s ready for action, wagging her stumpy tail.

“It’s kinda funny when you get mail that says ‘Belle Flintoft,’ ” Tom Flintoft says. “They’ll just say, ‘Thank you for helping me through this, you made it easier for us.’ “

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or