THE LOVED ONE
William Remkus has made a living----and a cause out of grieving over pets.
By: Emily Lambert.
M AX AND TYLER, TWO Scottish terriers, lie in the shade of a maple tree beneath a black granite memorial stone bearing a quote from William Wordsworth. A picture of the pair, mouths open, eyes glinting, is etched on the headstone. It seems a lot of ballyhoo for a couple of mutts, but William (Bill) Remkus is appropriately solemn. He is the third-generation owner of the Hinsdale Animal Cemetery, final resting place for 75,000 animals—dogs, cats, snakes and even a shark—buried in or scattered all around the Willowbrook, Ill. property. “You can’t judge the way people memorialize a pet,” says Remkus, 54. “It’s such a personal choice
Stephen King, with his book and then screenplay, helped make pet cemeteries a pop culture horror joke. Remkus, by contrast, has turned the funny niche into a serious business. His Hinsdale Animal Cemetery netted $200,000 before taxes on $1.4 million in revenue for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30. Sales were up 28% over the previous fiscal year. Now Remkus, who runs the outfit with his wife, Nancy, is on a crusade to bring respect and professionalism to the industry. “The growth would be tremendous in this industry:’ he preaches. “So much is swept under the rug
Remkus’ grandfather William and father, George, purchased the then 5-acre pet cemetery in 1950 after a dying customer of George’s grocery store implored him to buy and maintain it.
Remkus grew up in a house on the property, where grief-stricken pet owners sometimes stopped by. Remkus started working for his dad out of high school, digging graves and cutting grass.
In 1985 Remkus bought out his parents for $150,000. At that time the cemetery did $180,000 in sales and had a steady flow of customers driving the 20 miles out from Chicago. In 1992 Remkus spent $30,000 on a crematory, which his father hadn’t wanted to bother with. Today 60% of his customers cremate their pets ($160), and three-fourths take the ashes home to keep or scatter. Remkus still offers burials, which can cost as much as $1,100, including the coffin ($850 in oak). He has five crematories in two buildings running six days a week.
Death is a tricky business to sell. To gently encourage animal lovers to think about their pets’ mortality, Remkus sponsored walks held by shelters and also attended pet expos. He took time to soothe potential customers, explaining that with his help Fluffy would rest in peace, not in a dump or a rendering facility. He also advertised in newspapers and yellow pages, featuring photos of his well- manicured graveyard.
Competition was stiff. After he bought the crematory, Remkus asked his own vet to send referrals his way, but the vet was already working with another crematory company. Six months later Remkus got a break. The other company had failed to pick up a pet on time, and the owner was irate. After that the vet sent more business to Remkus, then all of it. Other vets followed suit.
Another rival’s blunder didn’t hurt. In 1998 a pet lover named Barbara Dornan opened the urn from a competitor that held her lab dalmatian, Chips, who was cremated in 1983. She found rodent bones and a bell from another animal’s collar. (Not that unusual, says Thomas Carroll, the crematory operator shed used, who says dogs eat the darnedest things.) Dornan, outraged, hooked up with Remkus, and they petitioned law-makers to take action. In 2001 state legislators unanimously passed the Companion Animal Cremation Act, which instructs cremation companies to define their services in detail and in writing.
While celebrating one victory, Remkus was already working toward another. His parents had been early members of the International Association of Pet Cemeteries & Crematories. A few years ago Remkus started going to its meetings regularly, proposing that the group draft bills to submit to state legislatures that would crack down on shady practices (such as not disclosing when a cremation would be communal—several dogs tossed in together). He hasn’t got very far with that effort, although at the group’s meeting last March he got polite nods from an audience of 80-odd colleagues.
Business is pretty good now. Hinsdale, with 12 employees, has customers who ship pets from other states. Some of those customers used to live nearby; others found his Web site. One customer who wanted to watch the cremation recently drove in from Nashville . “It has become more socially acceptable to admit you have a pet that’s really part of your family:’ says Nancy.
Remkus is in the process of doubling the size of the cemetery office from 720 to 1,440 square feet. But after buying another 2 acres six years ago, he can’t afford the few neighboring parcels left at today’s price of $600,000 an acre. The area, once unincorporated and rural, is now thoroughly suburban. Also troubling: Illinois law doesn’t protect the graves of pets from being disturbed. Remkus calls that “our next issue.”
“It’s a long-term commitment. You have to think beyond your own lifetime:’ he says . He’s not just talking about pets, of which he has ten on the grounds, including three dogs (Flame, Molly and Dan) and a cat (Katie). His two sons, Jonathan, 24, and David, 22, are preparing to take over the business one day.
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