It was just a dog. That’s what some people would say. But when David McCarthy’s Great Dane, Bandit, died in his Decatur living room last spring, the pet funeral home director treated the animal as if it were a fallen soldier.
Shortly after the vet made the pronouncement and McCarthy read a passage from a book of pet prayers, Doyle Shugart pulled up to the house. He wrapped the 160-pound dog in a blanket and with the help of three others gently lifted her onto a stretcher, carried her into the van and took her to the crematory.
“There was a way he touched Bandit,” said McCarthy, 46. “It was sacred. He understood the circumstances.”
Shugart’s Deceased Pet Care Funeral Homes & Crematories has specialized in providing dignified farewells to pets throughout Georgia since 1972. Now the family business is putting the final touches on a new facility in Chamblee that the Shugarts say will be the largest pet funeral home in the country, square-footage wise, offering a whole new level of services and amenities for grieving pet owners who consider their animals family members.
The Chamblee facility on Peachtree Road replaces a smaller building that was knocked down a year ago. It houses two crematories, private counseling rooms, a showroom with more than 350 pet urns, caskets and other memorial products, two chapels where families can hold services, a euthanasia room for mobile veterinarians to put down sick animals and meeting space for local pet organizations.
“It’s been a dream of my mom and dad for about 40 years to build a pet funeral home that offered a level of services that you find at any human funeral home,” said daughter Donna Shugart-Bethune, marketing director for the company and the executive secretary of the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories, which is headquartered at the funeral home. “This is to further enhance that so we can service the client much better in their time of need.”
The Shugart family also operates the Oak Rest Pet Gardens in Gwinnett and Loving Care in Douglasville, which both have cemeteries in addition to crematories and chapels. Cremations make up about 80 percent of arrangements.
None of it seems strange to the Shugarts, in these transient times when a person’s pet might be the only family member in that state, offering unconditional love through bad marriages, deaths and other milestones.
“A lot of people don’t realize what their pet meant to them until they come to the end of their life,” Shugart-Bethune said. “The whole intent of the funeral business is for the comfort of the family.”
The Shugarts have their own section at Oak Rest for their family pets.
Shugart, who turns 70 this year, started the business while working as a funeral director for H.M. Patterson & Son. Sometimes Patterson would get calls from clients whose family services he had handled asking what could be done for a deceased pet. In those days, pets were either buried in the backyard or disposed at the landfill.
“He would provide them with a wooden box, but nothing that reached out to the pet owner,” Shugart said. He saw an opportunity.
Shugart began taking those calls on his own time. People were embarrassed to be seen showering so much attention on a dead pet. They would ask him not to put any signs on his vehicle when he showed up to take away their animal, so the neighbors wouldn’t know.
He made a point to handle the pets with the dignity he would give his human clients. Shugart would put the pet in a basket lined with baby blankets, or if it was a large pet, lay it on a stretcher.
In the ‘80s, pets were becoming members of the family, and “they could have cared less if I could have broadcast it to the world,” Shugart said.
By 1994, his business had grown to the point that he took early retirement from the human funeral home business and switched to pet funerals full-time. Deceased Pet Care handled the cremation of silverback gorilla Willie B., who lived at Zoo Atlanta from 1961 until his death in 2000, as well as the final arrangements for the pets of local media personalities and athletes.
The family does its best to accommodate clients’ wishes. Some owners have been cremated and buried alongside their pets. Ministers have been called in to preside over ceremonies. The home donates the land for all police service dog burials.
The funeral home even offers freeze-drying preservation, for those owners who never want to let go.
McCarthy’s wife selected a bronze urn to keep Bandit’s ashes in.
“The thing a pet owner doesn’t want to hear is, ‘It was just a dog. Get another one. Get over it,’” Shugart said. “That drives a stake in that pet owner’s heart. That lingers for the pet owner until they go to the grave.”