So there she was — a 57-year-old Benedictine nun-turned-chemist-turned Protestant pastor — sprawled on her belly in a 4-foot-deep closet conversing with Simon.
The 13-year-old Scottish terrier had lived a long life, often relaxing in the shade among the backyard hostas. But now he was having problems, and the Rev. Karen Clarke sensed he was afraid — that he knew the end was near.
His cancer spreading, Simon retreated to the closet corner and huddled beneath a rack of blue jeans and plaid shirts. During thunderstorms, he often hid there. But this time, he wasn’t there because of the rain.
“Simie, I know it’s time for you to go,” Clarke whispered in the dark closet as she scooted past the long dresses, inching closer to the terrier. “Will you come out so I can help you?”
When animals like Simon die, they often leave behind human companions trapped in a complex grieving process that Omaha-based psychotherapist Teresa Freeman said is the same as when a human loved one dies.
That’s why Freeman leads a pet loss support group at Omaha’s Humane Society, where a dozen or so grieving animal lovers gather twice a month to share tips on moving past their companions’ deaths. Some bereaved owners plan thousand-dollar burials for their gerbils or cats. Others struggle to move on without their horse or dog, like the woman who had a bench installed next to the graves of her Great Danes.
The sorrow is normal and healthy, Freeman said, but it surprises some pet owners and can lead to serious psychiatric issues such as depression and anxiety disorders if ignored.
“People don’t automatically assume that they are going to feel this kind of grief for an animal,” she said. “Our culture doesn’t really allow us to acknowledge how deep our relationships are with our pets.”
Resources for grieving pet lovers include an online network of support websites that allow bereaved owners to light virtual candles in honor of their dead pets or post suggestions on when it’s appropriate to adopt new companions.
This month, The New York Times published a story about the proliferation of pet ministries, and USA Today wrote about the success of pet-centric charities in a recent fundraising drive.
The attachment between pet and master isn’t a modern phenomenon. Archaeologists in Egypt have found domestic monkeys and dogs mummified and buried alongside their ancient owners. For centuries, a Lakota warrior’s favorite horse was shot and placed near the burial site, helping ease the journey to the spirit world.
And when Oblio the harbor seal died a couple of years ago, the Lincoln Children’s Zoo sent his remains to Whispering Pines Pet Cremation in Martell and had his ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
Meathead has a beautiful office.
There’s ample shade under sprawling pines. The perpetual trickle of customers keeps him occupied, but not swamped. And his bosses are never far away if he wants company.
But, of course, there’s another perk: When the teenage feline dies, he won’t have far to go.
The silver-coated cat spends his days wandering between the headstones at Rolling Acres pet cemetery. Surrounded by bronze corn stalks on three sides and a winding gravel road on the other, the 35-year-old enterprise is tucked off O Street between Lincoln and Eagle near Crooked Creek Golf Course.
Meathead’s favorite spot isn’t far from the graves of Gene and Dorothy Bush — and their 19 deceased pets.
The Bushes fell in love with Rolling Acres back in the cemetery’s early days. Dorothy, an elementary school teacher for 40 years, was a lifelong animal rights activist. She lobbied governors and newspaper reporters to support neutering campaigns, and she started burying her beloved bichons at Rolling Acres in the 1970s on a sprawling family plot.
Today, headstones pay tribute to Misty Doll, Sweetie Pie, Odie, Jack and 15 others. Artificial flowers mark the ground around the ashes of Gene, who died decades ago, and Dorothy, who died of a brain bleed in 2007 while planting pansies.
“Whether I go to heaven or hell,” she said shortly before her death at age 87, “my pets are all going to be there to meet me.
“And I plan on going to heaven.”
Rolling Acres started in the 1970s when Oakie the dachshund died. Founder Pat Strnot didn’t want her pet tossed in the garbage or cremated with other animals, but couldn’t find a resting place she found suitable. So she made her own.
In the decades since the cemetery between the cornfields opened, hundreds of dead cats, horses, dogs, gerbils, rabbits and other critters have signed long-term leases.
Even as Lincoln grows eastward — and the frequent sounds from the golf course public address system confirm that steady sprawl — a special zoning permit means Rolling Acres will remain untouched. That allows Strnot to accommodate people like the Bushes, who can’t imagine separating from their pets — even after death.
The site includes two crematoriums, (although humans buried at Rolling Acres are cremated elsewhere) and a so-called feline resort for cats not yet on their 10th life.
Pat Strnot still works the phone, but she sold the business to her son a few years ago. After a career as a pilot, Tom Strnot said tending to the gravesites and running the crematoriums is a fulfilling job.
But Rolling Acres hasn’t dodged the effects of a lagging economy. Tom Strnot said people who would have buried their pets a few years ago now are opting for cremations.
The Strnots, however, have been known to turn away business. The owner of a boa constrictor once called to inquire about cremation. While mammals are Rolling Acres’ specialty, Pat Strnot was open to the possibility if a vet would certify the snake was actually dead.
Turns out, the reptile coroner found a heartbeat. The snake was in a dormant phase, but still very much alive.
People without their own golden retriever — or boa — sometimes get the wrong idea about Rolling Acres, Tom said.
“They say, ‘It’s just a dog.’”
That’s why if a stranger asks him what he does for a living, he either says he’s a mortician or works in the pet industry.
But he thinks those skeptics don’t appreciate the deep bonds that form between human and animal, and the desire — perhaps even obligation — to honor those pets in death.
The Strnot family pets have a row of their own at the front of Rolling Acres. One day, Meathead will join those other dogs and cats with his personalized headstone.
But most dead pets in Lincoln are disposed of with much less fanfare. Veterinarians often cremate animals in groups and then dispose of the ashes. A private grave at Rolling Acres costs about $210.
“They spent 10-15 years of their life with you,” Tom said. “I think finding a nice place for them to be buried is a lot better than them being put out in a Dumpster.”
Karen Clarke is the pet pastor at Lincoln’s First-Plymouth Congregational Church.
After a dozen years as a nun and then a high school chemistry teacher and researcher, her health began to fail.
At one point, doctors called in her son from Wisconsin to say goodbye. Besides Crohn’s disease and kidney failure, she had a brain bleed and was in a coma.
She wasn’t supposed to make it, but a few days later, she woke up.
Clarke credits her Scottish terriers, McTavish and Fergus, with seeing her through the illness. In the years she spent homebound, at least one always kept vigil at her bed.
“They were my primary companions. They never left my side.”
So when she started visiting First-Plymouth a few years ago while recovering, she wanted to do something to honor animals like her Scotties. The church was starting an animal ministry, and Clarke’s theology degree qualified her to lead it.
Through Faithful Friends, Clarke comforts pets and owners. She blesses puppies and kittens. It’s important work, she said, that often leads her to inconsolable pet owners in animal hospitals and family rooms.
When Simon’s owner called, Clarke told her it was time for him to go.
“I know,” the owner said. “Will you come over?”
Simon had barricaded himself in the closet and wouldn’t budge. Clarke promised both dog and owner to see them through the next few hours.
Then she crawled through the closet to the dog. She whispered to him nose-to-nose and scratched his left ear. The right one was bleeding from cancer.
Simon eventually crawled out of the closet, and Clarke held him tight while his owner drove to the vet.
The trip was only a few miles, and he wanted to look out the window. So Clarke rolled it down and allowed Simon to rest his bloody right ear on her T-shirt.
When the vet gently pushed in the needle, Clarke prayed over Simon’s soul. Simon’s owner drove him back home for a private burial. Clarke went home to change her shirt.
Before wrapping him in a towel and placing him in the ground, they laid Simon on the patio so the family’s three other dogs would know their friend died. One sat vigil outside the box where Simon lay, another peeked once and sat solemnly alone in the backyard with his back turned. The other dog took one glance and went back inside.
Then they dug a hole, and Clarke said a prayer.
And Simon was laid to rest underneath the shade of the hostas.