Four feet under

When a pet passes away, many owners want more than a shoebox burial in the garden. Which is why one Scotswoman has set up the first funeral parlour and bereavement service for animals. JIM GILCHRIST went to meet her

TALKING to Dawn Murray, I become aware of a carefully drawn distinction between human and non-human realms. "These are made by human coffin-makers," she says – as if there could be any other kind. She's referring to the two-foot long, veneered and brass-handled chipboard casket, laid out amid the satin plush of the "Farewell Room" in her bungalow at Hyndford Bridge, near Lanark.

But Murray's preoccupations are indeed non-human. As Scotland's first pet undertaker, she is in the business of offering a complete, one-to-one service for distressed pet-owners having to deal with the demise of their furred or feathered friends. She'll even give counselling to those having difficulty coming to terms with their recent loss.

Murray, and some of her clients, feature tonight on a slyly titled television documentary, Auf Wiedersehen, Pets, which reminds us not only that Britain is indeed a nation of pet-lovers – 30 million at the last count – but that we are also, of necessity, a nation of pet buriers and cremators, with a 100,000 recorded cremations and thousands of burials. There's a lot of late livestock at the bottom of our gardens.

Nevertheless, the sign "Pet Undertaker", which I first sight through driving Lanarkshire rain, is not one you see every day. Entering the roomy modern bungalow which Murray shares with her partner and fellow business director, David Melville, seven rescued greyhounds and lurchers and six cats, I'm conducted to the "Farewell room", where grieving owners can be with their deceased pets before they are taken away.

Apart from the aforementioned coffin, its shelves display an intriguing array of caskets for pet ashes, from life-sized carved wooden bone-chewing dogs (with a hatch in the bottom in which the ashes of the late lamented Bonzo can be stored) to plain biodegradable bronze urns, or – popular with children, this – a small, flatpack cardboard coffin bearing a colourful image of what appears to be a celestially bound rabbit in a spaceship.

"It comes with a wee book to tell children how to hold their own wee ceremony in the back garden," explains Murray. "It'll help them cope with what's probably their first experience of death."

In her living room, the bay windowsill is arrayed with 11 variously sized wooden caskets, each with its own engraved nameplate: "Spanner", "Lucky", "Suzy", "Kaz" … two cats, two mongrels and the rest rescued greyhounds. Morbid? "Not at all," she replies. "They were part of our family when they were alive. Most people don't know they're there, unless they go to the window."

It was the fate of one of these greyhounds, Kaz, which prompted Murray, a former purser with P&O lines, to start her unusual business. She regularly adopts retired racing greyhounds, thousands of whom, she says, are put down every year.

Late one night, while she was out walking him, Kaz was severely mauled by two Staffordshires. The elderly dog never fully recovered and, towards the end of 2004, she had to have him put down by the vet, after which she contacted one of the large (pet] crematoria to dispose of the body.

"The van arrived at the house and this young man walked in. I was feeling devastated; it was coming up to Christmas, I was living on my own, I'd recently lost my mother from cancer and now my dog had died. This man walks in and says, 'Is this the deid dug?' He sort of heaves him up over his shoulder and, next thing, you hear all the bones cracking in the dog's neck. I appreciate he was dead, but his mouth opened and his blue tongue came out and the boy just walked him out of the house like that, in front of everybody, with the dog's head hanging over his shoulder. "I was deep in grief anyway, and it was just all so raw. I thought, that wasn't right and it wasn't nice – there must be something more out there."

Murray, 44, had been training as a bereavement counsellor – for humans, that is – but found that too painful so soon after losing her mother. She looked into pet bereavement counselling instead, "because I thought there must be more people on their own really struggling with this."

While working for a diploma in "companion animal bereavement counselling", she also looked around to see who was offering the kind of one-to-one pet funeral service that she now provides: "The answer was nobody."

Hence the two Skoda estates, parked outside the house, which have "Pet Undertaker" discreetly written on the back. When raised, the tailgate reveals a boot area cushioned for taking the deceased to the pet crematorium she uses – Paws At Rest, overlooking the Eden Valley outside Carlisle. Murray operates purely on a one-to-one basis, arranging cremation or burial and offering support and counselling to those who have lost much-loved pets, or are dreading the prospect of having them put down.

When the cars are conveying the deceased animals to their last rest, they fly a small black flag. Is that not a bit over-the-top? "People love the respect that we show to their pets," Murray asserts. "I know a lot of people will find it wacky, but it was born out of me just wanting a bit more dignity accorded to my own pet."

It is an area in which it is very tempting to scoff, if not downright cringe, at epitaphs such as "Cats leave paw prints on your heart for ever", or non-human (and much patronised) burial gardens called "Peternal Glen" or the aforementioned "Paws to Rest". In a world blighted by so much glaring human need, some of us might be excused for concluding that society is, dare one say it, going to the dogs.

"Society is certainly changing," Murray counters. "and we humanise our pets much more now. Long gone are your Rovers and Lassies of the world, instead you've got your Ivors, your Mollies…"

Evidence of an overindulgent society with skewed values? "No, but I do think that through humanising our pets we have become a lot more aware of their benefits. I certainly know of some elderly people whose pets died and they felt they had no reason to go on. (Some had] no families and the only reason they got out of bed in the morning was to feed the cat or walk the dog."

During her first year of business, clients included Geraldine Fife of East Kilbride who, like Murray herself, was moved to engage her to help with her terminally ill shih tzu, Toby, because of a distressing experience with an earlier dog. "Eleven years ago I had a big Alsatian who was put to sleep; in those days you just took your dog to the vet and left them. I found it hard to properly grieve for my last dog and also very guilty. We'd had him a long time and I had this vision of him just lying on a pile of other dead dogs."

When Toby's time came, Murray accompanied Fife to the vet and arranged the cremation. "She helped me immensely in terms of coping," says Fife. "We had a coffin – people say that's a bit over-the-top, but when they were bringing him back out of the vet's, I was standing with my friends and a woman came out and she was crying and she says, 'Is that your wee dog?' She was really touched."

Is Murray catering for genuine loss, or is this just another manifestation of 21st-century mawkishness? The Gilchrist household, I tell her, has its own quota of hamsters, gerbils and goldfish, interred in the Flora-carton necropolis at the bottom of the garden. We currently have an eccentric cat which, despite its propensity for throwing up on Persian rugs and whetting its claws on armchairs, remains much loved. When its time comes, however, it will be (relatively) unceremoniously buried – probably among the rodents who predeceased it, and in whom it once instilled much terror. So am I now in the heartless minority?

"It's difficult to tell at the moment," Murray says. "A lot of people have said to me that they wished I'd been around five or ten years ago when they'd walked out of the vet's, leaving their dead dog or cat behind. We're looking at 50 per cent of the population having pets, and probably 50 per cent of that group wouldn't consider a pet undertaker, but more and more people are."

So far as charges are concerned, Murray says that for her to collect a dead pet from a home in Glasgow or Edinburgh, take it for cremation and return the ashes the same or following day works out at around 220. "So in comparison to a human funeral it's very much cheaper – and you're talking about a one-to-one service."

So far Murray has solemnly disposed of equal numbers of dogs and cats, she says, plus one rabbit. No reptiles or stick insects? "No…" she pulls a face, although she knows of one pet crematorium that was asked to cremate a newt.

Agreeing that her unusual profession is already big business across the Atlantic, she says that she wouldn't like to go too far down the American route. "I'm not a believer in this business of designer dogs being carried about in a handbag.

"In America," she adds, "they have hearses (as we would know them) and they actually put a white coffin inside and have a minister or pastor doing the whole shebang. I always think this is a bit bizarre." She is asked, occasionally, to say a few words over the canine or feline remains.

"I have a pet prayerbook – which, of course," she smiles, "comes from America."

Which brings us to Rainbow Bridge, as it is known by those in the business – or as the programme commentary puts it, "the land of slipped leashes and never-ending walkies".

"Everybody wants to believe their pet's in heaven," says Murray, who professes no particular religious beliefs herself. "I'm not a regular church-goer," she says, then laughs, "that's mostly because of the dogs. But I have to be open to everybody."

On tonight's documentary, Gordon Smith, "psychic barber" and presenter of the Most Haunted TV show, claims that pets do indeed await their owners on the other side, and that they not infrequently turn up at his sittings.

It can all get a bit hard to take, but, tearing ourselves away from woofs across the ether, does Murray's business make enough for her to keep body and soul together? She smiles: "I must admit it hasn't made any money at all this first year."

"They say in human undertaking that it takes ten years for a business to get established," says Dave. But with 30 million pet owners in the country, the concept is clearly not as barking as you might think.

&#149 Storyline: Auf Wiedersehen, Pets is on BBC1 Scotland, tonight at 10:35pm

52% of UK households have a pet, according to a survey by the Pet Food Manufacturers' Association in 2004

23.1% of our 6.8 million dogs are mongrels. 7.8 per cent are collies, the most popular breed, followed by 6.5 per cent labradors

92% of the 9.68 million cats in the UK are mixed-breed "moggies"

52 cat breeds are recognised by the UK Governing Council of the Cat Fancy

3.8 billion is the estimated amount Britons spent on pets in 2006, which is likely to climb to 4.26 billion in the next two years

4.2 million households look after fish

19.6 million homes have rodents such as hamsters, rats and ferrets as pets

1.39 million households look after birds