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Funeral homes increasingly using dogs to comfort mourners

Published:Monday | June 15, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Lulu, a goldendoodle, 'prays' at the Ballard-Durand funeral home in White Plains, New York, on Thursday.


Sandy Del Duca was mourning the death of her father when Lulu, a curly-haired goldendoodle, came bounding down the stairs at the Ballard-Durand funeral home.

Del Duca thought Lulu was simply the pet of funeral home owner Matthew Fiorillo, whom she was meeting with to make arrangements. But the dog also works there one of an increasing number of dogs being offered by American funeral homes to comfort mourners.

It didn't take long for Del Duca to be won over.

"That dog looked into my eyes and I was done," Del Duca said. "She seemed to know just what I needed. A funeral is a funeral; it's not a great thing. But that dog gave the service a family atmosphere and made it more of a celebration."

Funeral directors say dogs, especially trained therapy animals, can lighten the often awkward, tense atmosphere at a wake or funeral service, and sometimes seem to know exactly who needs their help.

Lighter atmosphere

Whenever a dog joins a group of mourners, "the atmosphere changes", said Mark Krause, owner and president of Krause Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Milwaukee. "In a funeral home, people are typically on edge, uncomfortable. But everyone lights up, everyone has to greet the dog."

Krause bought Oliver, a Portuguese water dog, in 2001 to be a family pet. But his wife had Oliver trained to be a therapy dog, and he made the usual therapy-dog visits: schools, nursing homes, hospitals.

"Then my wife said, 'Why can't he do this in the funeral home?' and in the 10-plus years we had him, he probably touched a couple thousand families," Krause said. Oliver seemed to "sense grief and who needed him".

In one case, a boy about 7 years old had lost his 3-year-old sister and had stopped talking, even to his parents.

"The minute the dog came in, the boy started talking to him about his sister," Krause said. "This little boy tells the dog, 'I don't know why everyone's so upset, my sister said she's fine where she is.'"

"I don't suppose Oliver understood, but he looked at the boy as if he did," Krause added.

Oliver died in 2011 - his funeral was attended by 150 people and many of their pets - and has been succeeded by another Portuguese water dog, Benny.

When Oliver started, a dog in a funeral home was a rare sight. Statistics aren't kept, but Jessica Koth, spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association, said, "We hear from members that more and more of them are bringing animals into funeral homes, be it a dog or a cat, whether it's a certified therapy dog or just an extremely well-behaved family pet."

Some of the funeral directors are dubious about cats, however.

"Dogs are the only creature that love you more than they love themselves," Krause said. "Cats tend to lurk. They could surprise people."

Added Fiorillo, "I've never seen a gregarious cat."