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BLOOMINGTON — Marion Willetts lost her soulmate unexpectedly in September. Cooper, a yellow labrador mix, started experiencing tremors in his back legs and his condition rapidly deteriorated. He died less than a week later.

“He was the love of my life,” Willetts said. “He and I had an incredible bond.”

Many feel the same way about their pets. So what can be done to commemorate an animal's life when they've gone?

For Willetts, of Heyworth, an altar in her bedroom containing the ashes and photographs of her past pets is a perfect reminder of the memories they have left behind. She also commissioned a watercolor portrait of Cooper as a tribute to her most special companion.

Pets are taking on a larger role in many peoples' lives. In 2014, it is estimated that U.S. pet owners spent almost $56 billion dollars on their animals, compared to $45.5 billion in 2009, according to the American Pet Products Association. 

Dr. Meredith Pieper, a veterinarian at Prairie Oak Veterinary Center in Normal, notes that most pets are kept inside these days and many go with their owners on vacations.

“The norm is as a part of the family,” she said, “For a lot of people, their pets are like their children.”

When clients at Prairie Oak lose an animal, the clinic offers a complimentary cast of the animal's paw. The clinic also offers cremation services from a crematory in Paxton.

Kibler-Brady-Ruestman Memorial Home in Bloomington bought a pet crematory, the only one in Bloomington-Normal, a couple of years ago. Funeral Director Tim Ruestman said they handle one or two cremations a week in McLean County and work regularly with veterinarians in neighboring counties. The bodies of deceased animals remain in freezers at veterinarians' offices until they are picked up by the memorial home; the cremains are returned a few days later for the family to pick up.

The memorial home will pick up deceased pets from residences any time of day or night and transport them to the crematory.

Many bereaved pet owners have ceremonies to scatter ashes or have celebration of life gatherings. Ruestman recalls one in particular:

"People gathered at the lake where the dog first swam as a puppy and sang hymns and scattered his ashes.”

Kibler-Brady-Ruestman has not had any clients have services at the memorial home, but Stephanie Deiters, owner of Deiters Funeral Home in Washington, said she's seen her share.

"We had a woman have a full service for her dog. They had a procession to the cemetery, the minister was here," she said. "She even had a groomer come to the funeral home to groom the dog before the service."

Deiters has assisted clients who have lost iguanas, rabbits, birds and hamsters, in addition to cats and dogs. The funeral home's showroom contains urns and caskets of all shapes and sizes.

Pet cemeteries

There are a few pet cemeteries in the Twin Cities. Both Evergreen and Park Hill have spaces for dogs and cats. Kruger Animal Hospital in Normal has its own area for burial.

Tina Crow, manager of Evergreen Cemetery in Bloomington, said the decision to open an area for pets was made in 2011 to meet a growing need for places to bury pets. Although the cemetery only has five dogs and cats buried so far, Crow said they receive lots of inquiries from owners of deceased pets about burial.

“It's still a new thing for people. They don't even think about putting their pet in a cemetery," Crow said.

A plot for a pet at Evergreen is $500, which includes a granite headstone. Due to limited space, only dogs and cats are allowed to be buried in the pet cemetery.

It is illegal to bury pets within corporate city limits in Bloomington. Normal does not have a specific provision in its municipal code concerning pet burial, though Wayne Karplus, attorney for the Town of Normal, said, "We do strongly discourage people from burying their pets in their backyards."  

Freeze drying

For those who want a more vivid reminder of their pet, freeze-drying an animal is a relatively new option. Don Franzen is the owner of Don's Taxidermy and Freeze Drying in Wilmington, one of only four pet freeze-drying businesses in the country.

"It's not for everybody," he said, "but it's a great alternative available to people."

The process involves removing the animals internal organs, filling the body cavity with pillow batting, positioning the pet, and then placing it in a machine that removes all the water from the animal.

Eight- to 10-pound animals are $650. Hundred-pound animals start at $2,000.

The process is a long one. It may take a year for a 100-pound animal to be completely freeze-dried.

Franzen said he and his wife are artists, trying to recreate the way the animal looked in life for their owner.

"The only thing I can't bring back is that sparkle in their eye," Franzen said.

Although only ashes remain of her pets, Willetts plans on being near her beloved companions even after her own death. 

"I want my ashes and those of my animals either buried or scattered together because I want to have a sense of still being with them -- that we will always be connected to each other," she said. "It's like we're all still together in some kind of physical way, not just in an emotional sense, and we always will be."

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