After spending more than 30 years as a sign language interpreter, Wendy June of rural Mankato is making a change. A big change.

June has always loved animals, and counts peacocks, hedgehogs, sheep and goats among her former companions. As to why she settled on pet cremation as an outlet for that passion, she can’t quite explain.

“I don’t know!” she says brightly. But she does believe her business, called Mankato Pet Cremation, LLC, can fill a void. There are no pet crematories in the Mankato area, she says, so grieving pet owners may otherwise wait two weeks before getting their pet’s remains back.

June secured a county permit in December, installed a crematorium and has started looking for clients. She appreciates the chance to form a bond with pet owners and the trust they place in her.

“I see that person in their most raw moment,” she says. “Every time I get a pickup I get a tear-filled story about the cutest thing they remember.”

Deb McKay, who lives in rural Le Sueur County, searched for pet cremation options after the March death of her 14-year-old English springer spaniel, Maggie. Traditional options through a veterinarian might have taken weeks, and McKay had made her dog a vow.

“My promise to the dog, which is irrational probably, is that I would not leave her during this process,” McKay says. She wanted to wait in Mankato to pick up Maggie’s remains, but learned the process would take a day or two even at June’s business.

“Unfortunately, I was not able to keep my promise but I did my best and Wendy took very good care of her,” McKay says, choking up a bit.

June plans to grow her new business slowly, and has continued to work as a sign language interpreter. Though she’s marketing her services to individual pet owners like McKay, most cremations happen through veterinary clinics.

“I really do need their business to make it,” she says.

June also sees other business opportunities in helping people through the end of their pet’s life. Because many dog and cat owners don’t like their pets’ last hours to be at a veterinary office, she wants to team up with a veterinarian to offer in-home pet euthanasia.

And she’s touting herself as the “sendoff specialist,” meaning she’ll offer services and events to mark the life of a pet and offer closure. For example, she’s found a gun expert who can pack an animal’s ashes in a shotgun shell to fire off in salute. It could be an appropriate sendoff for a police or hunting dog, she says.

June got started with her new business in July. Because of its unusual nature, she got plenty of questions, from both customers and local governments, but appears to have answered them all.

Burning clean

The crematorium June purchased burns at about eight times the strength of a home furnace.

It’s actually two burners: The lower one incinerates the pets while the upper one burns off the smoke and odor.

“What comes off the stack is a shimmer,” she says. “It’s really very environmentally courteous to my neighbors.”

June’s Blue Earth County permit prevents her from emitting thick smoke; it says she “may not emit gasses into the atmosphere that are greater than 20% opacity.”

June says the ashes are “just organic matter” and not hazardous, though the permit requires her to dispose of them in the landfill.

She also wants to be able to answer a question that has occasionally embarrassed pet cremation services elsewhere: How do I know these ashes are my pet?

June gives each customer a ticket with a number on it. That number also follows the animal through the cremation process, so when the owner collects the ashes they can match the numbers.

Some pet owners don’t want the ashes back, and June charges slightly less for group cremations: $149 compared with $199 for private cremations. She charges less, $99, for small pets, like a hamster or Chihuahua.

She can also cremate larger animals. Horses, for example, are traditionally buried, except for their head, heart and hooves.

In Minnesota, many pets are cremated by the St. Paul-based Veterinary Hospitals Association, which has provided cremation services for vets around the state, including Mankato, for 34 years, says its executive director, Jeff Benson. It can take longer for the remains of Mankato-area pets to make it back to their owners, though Benson says the ashes are returned within a week or less.

They have a digital system that tracks when pets have been collected and where they are in the cremation process. They don’t do private cremations, though they separate the animals in the crematoria so that the ashes they collect in a given place are almost entirely from the same animal.

“For example, it’s position “A” in machine three, so we know exactly where they are at any given time,” Benson says.

He says pet cremation has risen dramatically in recent years, as has the proportion of pet owners who want their ashes back. When he started about eight years ago, about 40 percent of pet owners wanted their ashes back; now it’s at about 60 percent to 65 percent.

Benson says the demand might be driven by society’s changing view of pets.

“We’re starting to look at pets as a member of the family, not just a dog or a cat,” he says.

Even with her number-tagging system, June relies on quickly forming trusting bonds with customers. A handful of her early clients say it’s a strength of hers.

Saying Goodbye

When asked how to spell her name, Michelle Buettner of rural Milwaukee says “there’s hell in this Michelle.” Two “l”s, then.

Buettner and her husband, Bob, got Tucker, when he was a six-week-old barn cat. He burrowed his way into their hearts, comforting Michelle through the death of her mother.

Among the cat’s endearing habits was what they called the “Tucker plop.” He would sit on the arm of a chair and roll his 16-pound frame onto the chair.

Then Tucker got sick. He stopped eating, and after six days they agreed it was time.

Tucker hated car rides, so they hired an at-home pet euthanasia service called Peaceful Passage. A veterinarian came to their house and euthanized Tucker on his favorite pad in front of the fireplace.

“We wanted him in tender, loving hands the whole way through,” Michelle Buettner says.

Her dad is a friend of June’s, so she drove Tucker’s remains to southern Minnesota to get cremated. They plan to sprinkle his ashes in the garden.

For the Buettners, trust was essential in finding a person to cremate Tucker.

“It’s a matter of trust and knowing that we’re going to get his ashes,” Bob Buettner says — “and only his ashes,” his wife chimes in. Bob continued: “We would never know either way, but we trust Wendy.”

Of course, it helped that the Buettners already knew June.

McKay, the Le Sueur County dog owner, didn’t know June when she called seeking a person to cremate Maggie. She had a lot of questions about how the details would work, but found June to be honest and forthright.

“I was impressed with her openness,” McKay says. “The reason we used her is because she was honest, transparent and willing to answer any questions.”

June says it may take her a year or so to hit her target of 90 cremations per month, and she’s continuing to work as a sign language interpreter. She’s already on guard about being overwhelmed and has hired on a friend and family member part-time.

Any entrepreneur might worry about being stretched too thin, but she has other, unique, worries.

As an animal lover, handling deceased pets won’t be easy. That’s why she’s not offering to make plaster of Paris paw prints, as some businesses do. She’ll already be exposed to enough sadness; no need to add more.

“We call that vicarious trauma,” she says, referring to the pain of being exposed to the pain and sadness of trauma survivors. “I’m already ready for that.”

Mankato Pet Cremation LLC

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