At funerals it always seems to rain and this one is no different. A watery sun breaks through the thin clouds as a silver hearse drives sedately to the private crematorium. Later, the casket containing the ashes of the dear departed is conveyed to a small open grave where they are interred.
But this is no ordinary farewell. The ceremony has been arranged by Ann Blairman, who is saying a final, emotional farewell to Sophie, her cocker spaniel.
‘It’s very comforting when you’ve loved a dog to know that you’re giving it the best farewell you can.’ she says. ‘I couldn’t just let her be thrown away.’
The retired homeopath in her 70s is one of an ever-increasing number of pet owners who ensure their beloved animals are given a fitting send off when the time comes.
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Pet Cemetery: Neatly tended graves mark the final resting places of much-loved family pets
Animal funerals are big business. Dignity, a firm run by Kevin Spurgeon in Hampshire, carries out around 15 a day and the price varies from ?50 to ?500. Kevin, 33, is the second generation of his family to dedicate his life to the cremation and disposal of everything from goldfish to horses.
The firm was started by Kevin’s father, Barry, and his mother Carole in 1992. They had been watching a documentary on TV that showed family pets being disposed of in mass graves.
Kevin said his parents felt there was a need for a dignified way to look after animals following their deaths. Earnestly, he explains: ‘We provide a service to comfort people at a painful time in their lives.’
Whether the bereaved have lost a gerbil or an ageing pony, Kevin is able to take care of all the arrangements.
It was to Kevin that Ann Blairman turned when Sophie her spaniel, died aged 14. Dignity charged her ?140 to collect the body, bury the ashes in the woodland and to add Sophie’s name to a memorial plaque.
Mrs Blairman has taken in a series of stray dogs of varying ages over the years. When the time has come she has afforded each of them a proper funeral.
There are now ten of her pets in Kevin’s garden. A single plaque is their joint memorial — a kind of family mausoleum, if you will.
She confides that she uses telepathy to confide in her late canine friend.
‘I can communicate with her with my mind. We talk about things that are happening. Sophie knows everything that’s going on. And a lot of people don’t realise that dogs have great senses of humour.’ Indeed.
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Ziggy and Bobo: So important to their owners
Dignity is based down a country lane in a quiet Hampshire village. From the outside, the premises look like a traditional rural cottage. But inside, things are far from ordinary.
Each room is now an office and one is a special ‘farewell room’ for the viewing of deceased pets. Outside, naturally enough, is a garden of remembrance.
Pet funerals are not a new phenomenon. The practice is in fact steeped in history.
LORD BYRON, devastated by the death of his dog, Boatswain, built a mausoleum to house him through eternity and composed a sentimental piece of — aptly — doggerel to mark his passing, ‘Whose honest heart is still his master’s own, who labours, fights, lives, breathes, for him alone.’
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Rest in Peace: Lord Byron, below right, built a mausoleum to house the remains of his faithful dog Boatswain
Famous generals from Alexander the Great to Wellington have also mourned the mounts that carried them into battle with elaborate rites.
Nero famously made his horse a senator, and doubtless would have had a state funeral had the quadruped not outlived him and for all anyone knows, continued going to the Senate every day. There is also the scurrilous rumour that an A-list Hollywood star interred his hamster with due ceremony after it died of unnatural causes.
So Carol Scicluna, a former funeral director herself, is in esteemed company. She spent ?100 on having her much-loved marmoset monkey, Pepsi, cremated and her ashes sealed in a heartshaped paperweight. She couldn’t bear to bury Pepsi herself and so went to Dignity to make the arrangements.
‘Pepsi was like a baby to me,’ says Carol. ‘She was only five when she died of an intestinal illness.’
The monkey’s death also hit Louis, another marmoset who lived nearby, hard.
‘They loved being with each other, so much so that they moved in together and shared Louis’s enclosure. When Pepsi got ill he would help her around and lift her up to reach food,’ recalls Carol. When Pepsi died they had to inform Louis.
There was no choice but to show him her body.
'He held her face, stared into her eyes and when nothing happened, he laid her down and turned away in silence. It was heartbreaking,' she adds.
Not all of Kevin's clients opt for a full funeral service, although in addition to the Church of England liturgy, he has also undertaken a Hindu ceremony for a rottweiller.
The family who owned him, and who fully expect to meet him again in a further incarnation, had the ritual conducted by a Hindu Priest from a nearby Temple. The body was then taken into the garden and covered in rice, sweet spices and flowers and cinnamon bark. The whole thing cost over ?300, plus the fee for the priest.
Kevin can also call on the services of a spiritualist for non-doctrinal animals. He has also carried out a Hare Krishna cremation with chanting to the accompaniment of bells and drums for a much-loved mongrel.
For Kevin, the key word in the disposal of pets is respect. He usually picks them up in a silver hearse - a Volvo estate. Then he grooms them for display in the farewell room, where they can be seen for the last time before they are consigned to the kiln and reduced to ashes.
He cremates each animal separately ensuring that the right remains are returned to each owner.
He shows me a number of bags full of grey granules and mischievously invites me to guess what they once were.
'A hamster?' I suggest as he waves a small plastic bag at me.
'No.' he chortles. 'It's a cat.' He shows me a box.
'Feel the weight of this - it was a horsey.' It's beginning to feel like I'm playing some macabre guessing game in the House of Horror at a bizarre funfair.
Kevin asks me if I want to see where he keeps the corpses.
'Yes', I say, unsure about whether I mean it. He shows me into a small room with shelves against each of the walls. The smell of decay pervades the atmosphere.
I am surrounded by canine cadavers, each neatly wrapped in a blanket; some still in their baskets. They have chased their last ball, buried their last bone and pursued their last postman.
A few minutes later I watch as Kevin, wearing giant silver oven mitts, slides the body of a black spaniel down a short ramp into the super heated air of the disposal chamber.
Kevin shuts the door and mutters his mantra. I notice that he is careful about doing what he has promised.
'God bless you and may your spirit go in peace,' he prays.
Kevin is meticulous and reverent in his treatment of the animals and I sense he would have done it the same way even if I hadn't been watching. He tells me he gives each pet the dignified send off that the owner would wish for.
I notice he's looking over my shoulder at the kiln.
'Do you want to see how he's getting on?'
Before I can reply, Kevin has opened the door and a shiver goes down my spine as he gently prods the dogs remains with a long stick.
Following cremation, the ashes can be delivered in a variety of caskets or be kept in a locket, shaped as a ball, a bone or a heart - depending on the customer's preference.
Additionally, they can become part of a picture frame, presumably surrounding a picture of their living self.
Kevin seems to find his work truly rewarding.
'I'd be lying if I said I hadn't allowed my emotions to get the better of me sometimes. But I tell myself that I have to be strong for the bereaved families,' he says.
We wander out into the garden of remembrance. It is a tranquil place surrounded by trees with swathes of bluebells running between them.
Peaceful: Animals are laid to rest in idyllic surroundings
'I've cremated budgies, snakes, hamsters. We don't do the horses in the kilns here because they're not big enough, but I can arrange it,' Kevin explains.
The garden is full of little headstones with touching tributes etched on to the slate and photographs of the pets.
There's 'Sparky - who will never be forgotten', and 'Our little boy, Smokey'.
As I look around the pet cemetery and read the inscriptions dedicated to Rumpleteazer, Anniekins, Bobo and Twinkle I am struck by how important these animals were to their owners.
Kevin tells me, how almost a year ago to the day, he lost his own 'doggy', Mickey, a Doberman-German Shepherd cross. A tear springs to his eye as he tells me how much he misses him and confides that he keeps the ashes in his office so he can feel close to him.
Russian HR manager Ekaterina Alexandrova, 40, another satisfied Dignity customer, keeps her pet Siberian chipmunk, Pim in a small casket on her mantelpiece.
'He looked different from other chipmunks,' she tells me. 'His face was rounder.'
She decided to have him cremated because her job involves a lot of travel and she didn't want to leave him behind. She particularly wanted to be certain that the ashes she received were those of Pim and not of any other animal.
'He was amazing. I was blessed to have him. He was so emotional. I would have paid as much as ?1,000 to give him a proper, dignified funeral,' she says.