When visitors enter the reception area of Sleepy Hollow, they discover it’s not unlike other funeral homes, with soothing-colored decor, a round table and chairs in the family greeting area and beautifully upholstered sofas and loveseats in the visitation room. Shelves of decorative urns and etchings available for headstones line the reception room walls.
But Sleepy Hollow isn’t a funeral home in the typical sense. It is a pet cemetery and crematory, a place where families can decide on the service they prefer as well as how best to memorialize their pet.
Outside the funeral home and crematory is the pet cemetery, decorated with various types of granite and marble headstones, some with etched photos of their dog or cat, some simply with the name of the pet and dates of birth and death. Flowers adorn many of the grave sites, just as in a human cemetery.
David Fields, owner of Sleepy Hollow and a licensed funeral director, wouldn’t have it any other way. He has a degree in mortuary science and marketing and worked in the funeral home business for more than 30 years, since he was 14. He bases the standards at Sleepy Hollow, located in Byron Center, on his years of experience in funeral homes.
“We sit down with families just like if they would go to a funeral home to make arrangements for their loved ones,” Fields said. “We’ll make all the arrangements for them. They may choose to do a visitation or a viewing here in our chapel, so we would schedule that and prepare the pet. We’d bathe and groom it, position it and place it in a casket, close the eyes. They’ll come spend a few minutes in our chapel, or some invite family and friends.
“Some have certain religious rituals or rites from their different backgrounds. We had a lady from India who needed to do a food offering and needed different spices, so we had everything here in our chapel for her to be able to go through all the steps that she needed to honor her pet. We did the cremation according to what her religious background was.”
Because he worked with families grieving the loss of their loved ones in the funeral home setting for so many years, Fields said he understands what people are going through, whether they’ve lost a pet or a person.
“People need to understand grief and the seven stages,” he said. “We’re all going to go through it, we’re going to have anger, denial, depression, bargaining … so we deal with all those things. It doesn’t matter if it’s a human loved one or a pet companion. For a majority of people, the pet is a member of the family. So when they come in, we want to hear their story. We want to know. We want to hear happier times. ‘When did you get Lucky? How old was Lucky when he became part of your family?’
“They’ll start sharing pictures and stories with us. We want them to talk about it. That’s part of the process. We’re helping them through the grieving process and helping them to start thinking about things and lighten up so they’re not so fixated on the death and dying, or how the euthanasia went at the vet’s office. We want them to think about the life that has been lived. That’s why we have funeral homes for humans. We definitely don’t have them to go look at the body in the casket, we have them to celebrate the life. So we want them to be able to celebrate their pet’s life.”
Fields said while some pet owners think of their pets simply as animals and might have a new pet within a week after their pet’s death, others consider how much a part of their life the pet was.
“They help us through so much in life,” Fields said. “They’re very therapeutic for us. They get us through other losses we experience, like the loss of parents, through divorce, through kids graduating and going off to college, through kids getting married. It’s not just the sad times, there are a lot of happy times. A lot of young families come in, and the pet was their first child. It signifies them becoming a couple, getting married, starting their life together, having a baby.”
Sleepy Hollow, which has nearly 3,000 burials on its grounds, opened in 1969 and was purchased by Fields in 2001. He added 4,000 square feet of building space, multiple crematories, a paved parking lot and underground sprinkling for daily watering. It is unique to the pet cemetery industry in that it’s the only one in Michigan with a licensed funeral home director, it has multiple crematories (including the only equine crematory in the state), and it has trademarked a bar code scanning system, Assured ID, to ensure pet owners are getting their pets remains returned to them.
Fields’ services include private cremation, where one pet at a time is cremated, or more cost-efficient semi-private cremation with more than one pet (in separate areas of the crematory, and pets remain segregated throughout the process so ashes do not get mingled), or memorial cremation, with several pets cremated together and their ashes spread on the cemetery grounds.
Green burials, in which the body is placed on organic material and covered in organic material before begin topped with soil, also is available at Sleepy Hollow. And Fields has begun offering an option called “Let your Love grow,” a biodegradable package and planting mixture that can be mixed with cremains and buried in the ground, or used in planting perennials, trees or rose bushes.
Clay impressions of a pet’s paw are available, as are a wide variety of urns. Sleepy Hollow has teamed up with Buddies Beloved Pet Keepsakes to create custom rings, earrings, key chains or charms for bracelets or necklaces. The pet’s actual paw or nose prints, taken from digital photos, clay, plaster or resin molds or ink prints, are etched into the sterling silver, white gold or gold charm or ring.
One of Fields’ favorite items is glass-blown art that incorporates the pet’s remains. A small amount of remains are mixed into a decorative glass-blown globe or touchstone.
Fields said the availability of several options is important to his customers, as is his company’s practice of offering their services at no charge to law enforcement pets and to families who lost pets in a house fire.
“I try to look at the big picture, and that’s the thing with me being a funeral director,” Fields said. “I understand those things. No one in Michigan does things the way we do it and has the facilities we have. That’s why we’re set up the way we are and things are done in a way to help people come in and be comfortable. That’s part of the grieving process.
“It just comes down to, ‘how do I want to be treated? How is this going to reflect on me? What does it say about my integrity or my character?’ That’s the bottom line. When you own a business or are doing something that is for the good of the community, a lot of it reflects back on you.”