The Pentagon is recommending changes in the handling of troops' remains, after it was revealed that a crematorium contracted by the military handles both human and animal cremations.
A military official said there have been no instances or charges that human and pet remains were mixed. But officials are now recommending that troops' remains be incinerated at a facility that is dedicated entirely to humans, in order to avoid any appearance of a problem. Or, officials said, families can opt to have a relative's remains sent to a local funeral home for cremation, which would be paid for by the military.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates believed the earlier situation was "insensitive and entirely inappropriate for the dignified treatment of our fallen," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
"Our heroes deserve to be better treated than that," Morrell said, adding that a sign at one of the crematoriums noted that it also does pet cremations. He said Gates offered an apology to military families for the insensitivity.
The Dover Air Force Base Port Mortuary, where all troops' remains arrive from the battlefield, does not have its own crematorium, so it contracts with two funeral homes for the cremations: Torbert Funeral Chapel and Pippens Funeral Home.
The policy of cremation for household pets has grown in popularity in recent years. There are facilities, such as this one, that handle only pet cremation. The notion of processing both human remains and animal remains in different retorts, or incinerators at the same site is not without precedent:
Bayview Crematory, which had been considering acquiring two retorts, or new cremation units—one for human remains and coincidentally, one for animal remains—supported Robinson’s idea, and a new business —A Paw Print In Heaven, LLC—was born. Robinson printed up business cards and started an advertising campaign. And these days, she’s keeping busy.
“When I get a call, I talk to the person and I find out what’s going on—what kind of pet it was, what happened, how they are doing, where they are.” Robinson makes it clear to pet owners that she is sympathetic to their loss because “you have to understand that the pet is a family member. Sometimes what they need is someone to listen to them cry.”
The animal is cremated almost immediately upon arrival, and the ashes put into a wooden urn, which is returned to the owner, along with the I.D. tag that matches the one the owner is still holding. The knowledge that the ashes in the urn are indeed those of the deceased pet has become a prime concern to many owners. Many have heard horror stories, such as the 2004 legal case brought by nearly 1,700 families against a Georgia crematory that failed to cremate bodies, and returned cement dust rather than ashes to family members after charging them fees for crematory services.
“That sort of thing is just horrible,” said Robinson, “and I do think people are distrustful. They’ve had reason to be.”
However, the notion of handling the bodies of soldiers killed in the Iraq war or the war in Afghanistan in such a facility has forced the military to look into the manner in which it conducts this type of operation.
Pippens' crematorium is located at the funeral home and is used only for human remains, while Torbert's has incinerators for both human and animal remains.
While most facilities don't advertise the fact that they handle both human and animal remains, there is a sign near the Torbert crematory advertising the "Friends Forever Pet Cremation Service."
Officials said there are three incinerators at the Torbert facility, and two are used for humans, while one is used for pets. The human and pet facilities are separated by about 20 feet.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, Air Force staff director, told Pentagon reporters that it is not uncommon for crematoriums to provide both services.
It is not known whether the military would have conducted a review of the policy if one military officer had not complained to Congress about the facility in Delaware that handles both human and pet cremations:
Klotz said the issue came to light Friday when an officer who works in the Pentagon went to Dover to pay respects to a fallen comrade who was being cremated. The soldier noticed the pet cremations sign, and was concerned about the fact that the facility handled both human and animal remains.
The officer alerted senior officials at the Pentagon, who notified Capitol Hill and quickly pulled together the policy changes.
Bill Torbert, president of Torbert Funeral Chapel, said a representative from Dover Air Force Base visited a crematory run by his company earlier this week, but was satisfied there was nothing amiss.
Torbert said the human and pet crematories are in adjoining buildings on the same property but have separate entrances. A sign advertising pet cremation services is in front of the Friends Forever office, but there are no signs on the building housing the human crematory facilities, which Torbert said are not used for cremation of pets.
“We do a lot of work with the military,” he said. “We service them very well.”