Three Feet Under

Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, 26 Years After Errol Morris

May 31-June 6, 2006

Two miles beyond the Silverado Country Club, a popular destination for Napa’s well-heeled, the snaking road turns sharply to reveal an unexpected find: the gated entrance to the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. On a recent spring day, the cemetery’s chapel office, where the bereaved view their pets for the last time, was as silent as a grandmother’s Victorian drawing room.

An apparently taxidermied tabby cat lay on a chair by the desk–an eerie touch. Languorously, the cat stretched, dispelling fears of having stepped into Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Bootsie’s friendly.

Two small rooms for merchandise adjoin the chapel. One of them is filled with sample pet urns. The other showcases a variety of head stones, artificial flowers and miniature caskets. A couple of the coffins are covered in white, ruffled fabric and fastened with embroidered rosettes, infant interments doubling for pets. Most of the containers, however, have been designed expressly for animals, including the popular Hoegh line made of long-lasting polystyrene. Some of the caskets are wooden, like the handsome, hexagonal box with a green velvet lining, resting open on the floor. It must be a favorite of Bootsie’s; like the chair she occupies in the chapel, this coffin is lined with a white terrycloth towel.

In many ways, Bubbling Well resembles a human cemetery. Bouquets lay at many of the headstones, which bear uncanny resemblance to their human counterparts: “Zena, Our Littlest Angel,” “Scruffy–Rest Is Thine / Sweet Memory Ours” and “Andy–Our Beautiful Son.” Of course, the names are more playful, the life spans shorter and, unlike human cemeteries, there are very few religious symbols. Figures of animals, not saints, pepper the site, with the exception of the St. Francis of Assisi sculpture that presides over a garden for cremated remains (cremains).

Many of the tombstones feature a photograph of the entombed animal, but the cemetery is not just for cats and dogs. It also is home to the remains of lizards, rabbits and birds. Bootsie scampers through the grounds, treading without a care on the tiny headstones that lie flat to the earth. Plot sections range from Gentle Giants to Kitty Korner to Garden of Honor, an area reserved for service and police dogs killed in the line of duty.

This is probably the world’s most famous extant pet cemetery, immortalized by Errol Morris in his 1980 documentary Gates of Heaven, which critic Roger Ebert lists as one of the top 10 movies of all time. The documentary also engendered a 1979 short film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, after Herzog promised to do the silly deed if Morris ever followed through on making the off-beat flick.

Portrait of a Family

Bubbling Well was the brainchild of John “Cal” Harberts, who bought the original 50-acre property, then a gentleman’s ranch, in 1961 for just $60,000. The family relocated there from Hawaii, where Cal had worked as the general manager of Mililani Memorial Park, a human cemetery on land provided by the Dole Pineapple Company. As an entrepreneur, he discovered the need for a pet cemetery service in the Bay Area when the San Jose Mercury News broke a story about veterinarians who tossed deceased pets into their dumpsters. In response, he cameup with the notion of the “country burial,” a practice already known in the Midwest as a “farm burial,” where for $5, pets could be buried in a common grave. “My father was a pioneer, doing this in California,” says Cal’s son Dan Harberts, now the memorial park’s president and owner. “Everyone thought he was nuts.”

Morris’ Gates of Heaven initially focuses on the moral conflict between those who would have dead pets rendered into tallow and those who would have them buried or cremated. In the case of the Los Altos Foothill Pet Cemetery, financial problems required the owners to sell their facility. Cal, the Good Samaritan of the industry, agreed to rebury Los Altos’ 450 displaced pets at Bubbling Well in a plot he created specifically for them.

The year is 1977. Morris introduces us to the Harberts family: Cal, his supportive wife, Scotty, and their two grown sons, Phillip and Dan, whom they have convinced to return home to help with the business. Phillip, dressed like a cowboy dandy, has just finished a stint in Salt Lake City as an insurance salesman and motivational speaker and is now trying to motivate his younger sensitive brother, Dan, a recent college grad.

Waxing philosophically about love, the twenty-something Dan is a true child of the era. He dutifully learns the business, but in his off-time hooks his electric guitar to an amplifier outside and rocks out, the music reverberating over Bubbling Well’s little gravestones and beyond into the valley.

Dan and his father share lofty goals for the park. “We are not content with just having an ordinary, nice or good pet cemetery,” Cal tells Morris. “Ours is going to be the finest. We’re not going to stop ’til ours is the finest in the country. There’ll be no finer when we’re through.”

A B-roll shot shows the young Dan manning the chapel office. He’s sitting at a table where the desk stands now, and there is an old-fashioned clock on one wall. In some senses, even in 2006, it’s as if the hands have never moved. The pet cemetery is still family-owned and -operated, and the chapel office décor has barely changed. A portrait of Sam, the family’s basset hound, still hangs in the same position. Sam, whose image is also emblazoned on the park’s entrance gate, was the cemetery’s unintentional ambassador during his lifetime, gaining popularity with customers by trotting down the hill of his own accord to attend many burials.

Dan is, of course, older now. His baby-faced dreaminess has given way to middle-aged calm, and his once shaggy locks have thinned to gray. Two newer portraits have been added to the chapel’s walls. One is of Dan’s pet yellow Lab, BuBu, propped up on a gold easel with a bright arrangement of white and red artificial flowers in a basket underneath it.

“[Bubu’s death] upset me so much that I didn’t want to get another pet,” Dan says. “It affected me strangely, and I didn’t want to go through that grief again. Wherever I went, he went. He was my shadow. There was no dog that could ever replace him.” The animal’s cremains are now in a small, engraved box by the door.

The other new portrait is of Cal, who passed away five years ago at the age of 85. Hanging over the piano, the portrait shows him flashing a bright smile, dressed in a dark suit and red tie. His ashes now rest in an urn elsewhere in the chapel. Dan muses, “He’s in that room over there. When my mom passes away, he’ll be buried and put in with her.”

The chapel office also features a flat-screen TV that loops a slide show of the park’s views accompanied by instrumental music. Dan eventually plans on devoting the flat screen every other day to paid pet photo tributes.

But the biggest change in Bubbling Well since Morris’ film is how much it has grown. When Morris shot the memorial park, there were only two plots–bright squares of green, standing out as an ironic testament to vitality against a sea of summer-browned grass. Now the memorial park seems to stretch on and on, and the Italian cypress trees, stone walls, ponds, streams and bridges that divide the plots create the illusion that the park is even larger.

Hearse of Another Kind

Since it was established in 1971, Bubbling Well has cared for the final oversight of almost 11,000 pets. The five-acre cemetery is part of a 21-acre parcel where Dan Harberts and his wife reside. Today, Harberts is dressed casually in a green, button-down shirt and jeans. His serene blue eyes are framed by bushy, gray eyebrows that make him resemble the Wizard of Oz, in charge of a lush, neatly mowed emerald necropolis.

There are an estimated 650 to 750 pet cemeteries and crematories in the United States today. Besides providing burial grounds, many operate both independently and in conjunction with veterinary offices to provide cremation services. Pet cemeteries and crematories provide alternatives to both home burial and to rendering. In many places, it is illegal to bury an animal on one’s own private property, and in some instances, dead pets left at veterinary offices without directions from the owner wind up at rendering facilities that cook them into tallow, a material used in soaps, lipsticks and glue.

Sonoma County Animal Regulation has arrangements with a rendering plant in Stockton that disposes some of the county animal shelter’s unwanted and stray animals. But Barry Evans, the county agency’s division manager, cautions, “We have some agreements with vets who bring [euthanized] animals to us for disposal. These pets belong to people who have not specifically asked for cremation, which costs money. The vets are probably trying to help these people by providing a less expensive service.” Evans estimates, however, that the county only receives about 50 pets from vets a year.

Reflecting going rates nationwide, Bubbling Well charges between about $300 and $700 for a burial site, $120 and upwards for a pet marker, and roughly $150 to $300 for a casket. That adds up to $570, if Sparky is small and doesn’t require fancy digs. Maintenance fees, which Bubbling Well includes for the first three years, are an additional $50 per year thereafter, or $400 for perpetuity. In accordance with industry ethical standards, pet cemeteries have the right to exhume and cremate a pet if, after a preset number of years and many reminders, the owner still has an outstanding maintenance fee. (In spite of some 25-year-old delinquent balances, Bubbling Well has yet to exhume a pet.)

When a pet dies and its owner opts for a private burial at Bubbling Well, the company first sends one of its two drivers–each with assistant in tow–to pick up the pet, which is cold-preserved until burial. The animal’s owner then picks out a burial site, something that can also be done before the pet dies as part of a special “pre-need” plan, similar to what happens at human cemeteries. The animal is prepared behind-the-scenes; brushed, fragranced and arranged in its casket. An optional final viewing takes place in the chapel office, and afterward the pet is driven down in a golf caddy to its gravesite.

Harberts feels that the last moments between a pet and its owner are very personal, so while offering support through the burial, he chooses not to get involved by actively leading a ceremony. “We facilitate [the owner] seeing their pet, taking them down for the burial and making sure they have a positive experience,” he says. Pet owners, usually dressed casually (not in black) sometimes choose to say a poem. The pet is then interred three feet below the surface.

Regulated only in some states, qualifying pet cemeteries can join the New York-based, not-for-profit International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematoriums (IAOPCC), which provides a code of ethics for 250-plus member organizations and a mediation service prepared to handle customer complaints, though there have not been any in the past two years.

To become a member, a pet cemetery must possess legally dedicated land and a maintenance plan. “Then you know that the pet cemetery will always be there and there are monies that will be there to keep it up,” says Brenda Drown, IAOPCC executive secretary.

The association also hosts an annual convention and continuing education, offering workshops that mirror those in many industries: customer satisfaction; state and federal legislation; and accounting. On the quirkier side, an estimated 99 percent of the IAOPCC’s members offer free services for such service animals as guide, firefighter, police and army dogs.

Dante’s Journey

Pet cemeteries are not a new or local phenomenon. The first known dog burial occurred alongside two humans 14,000 years ago in Germany. Other ancient canine gravesites have been discovered in Israel (2,000 years old) and in Kentucky (5,000 years old). The IAOPCC’s membership includes pet cemeteries and crematories in Canada, England, China and Mexico.

Bubbling Well, which is a well-respected member of the IAOPCC and generally caters to customers throughout the entire Bay Area, is highly sought-after, as evidenced by one Bay Area customer who, after relocating to Japan, continued to ship his deceased pets to Bubbling Well for burial.

When Diane Feirman’s nine-year-old Wheaton terrier, Dante, succumbed to cancer this spring, she decided to bury his remains at Bubbling Well after a referral from her animal hospital. Speaking by phone from her home in the mid-Peninsula, she explains her choice. “Some people just leave their pets at the vet’s, but I thought my dog deserved more than that. Dante was a wonderful, loving, caring companion.”

After two-and-a-half hours of walking the property, Feirman finally settled on a site giving onto Bubbling Well’s patented view. She commends the staff for their patience and for giving her privacy, leaving her time alone to say her final goodbyes. Wrapped just so in his favorite blanket, Dante was buried with his chew sticks, blankets and toys. Feirman’s voice breaks, “I loved my dog–like, a lot. And I just wanted the best I could do for him. [Bubbling Well] gave me options that felt good for me.”

Pet death can be just as painful for pet cemetery owners, some of whom become involved in the industry as a response to a four-legged friend’s passing. For this reason, the late Peter Drown, who served as the executive director of the IAOPCC until his death in 2000, founded his family’s business, Drownwood Forest Pet Cemetery and Crematory in upstate New York, after his pet Pomeranian, Tiger, suffered a grisly death in a mean-spirited “football” game played by two boys. Drown, who had experience as a director of human funerals, found that his town had no pet services, so he had the Pomeranian frozen and then embalmed until he could get his pet cemetery off the ground. To this day, Tiger rests in a private crypt in the cemetery’s mausoleum.

Now the IAOPCC is headed up by Peter’s son, Stephen, who serves as the executive director, and daughter-in-law, Brenda. She is also president of Whispering Maples, a human mausoleum and crematory, and runs both organizations out of the same office in Ellenburg Depot, N.Y.

Brenda has a penchant for Yorkies and rottweilers, and when her own pets pass on, she opts for cremation. The remains of Barry Manilow, a Chinese Shar-Pei, and Zeus, a Yorkie peacock terrier, rest in urns on her mantle. “I still talk to them when I dust them off,” she laughs over the phone.

Raining Cats and Dogs

As a whole, the pet industry is growing. Even when Gates of Heaven was shot, Cal Harberts deemed the ’70s a “pet explosion,” attributing the phenomenon to the pill, when people started to have more pets than babies. Now more than 150 million Americans own pets. According to Reuters, the sales of pet supplies online are expected to grow more than 30 percent, and along with cosmetics, they will lead Internet sales growth this year.

A Chicago-based company, LifeGem, which opened in 2001 and has offices in Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, makes diamonds from the ashes of loved ones, and estimates that between 20 percent and 25 percent of the orders it receives are to metamorphose pet remains. An even higher percentage of such orders comes from its Japanese market.

Furthermore, there has been a proliferation of “emotional service” animals since 2003, when the Department of Transportation ruled that animals who aid the emotionally afflicted should have the same privileges as those who help the physically disabled. Emotional service animals, be they dogs, cats, goats, miniature horses or monkeys, help their owners deal with psychological difficulties. If the owner carries a doctor’s note, the animal has access to pet-unfriendly places, like restaurants and rental abodes, and can fly for free on some airlines. After the 9-11 attacks, 100 dogs were even employed to help affected families cope with the disaster.

“Young couples have chosen to have careers and not families. My son and his wife were like that for a long time. For 12 years, I had granddogs. Now they’re going to have twins,” says Brenda Drown of the IAOPCC. Tracing the role–once reserved exclusively for kin–that pets have taken, she says, “I’ve had men call me on the phone, looking for a pet cemetery for their dog, crying–crying. Everyone who calls me looking for a pet cemetery or crematory is very upset. Whereas pets used to be guard dogs and work animals, now pets are part of people’s families.”

Just how much the phenomenon is growing, however, is hard to gauge, due to a certain discomfort in the industry about measuring success with a financial figure. “There are pet cemeteries that are million-dollar operations, but that’s not the norm,” says Brenda. “Then there are a lot of people that just offer a service that pays for itself. I don’t like to have the industry portrayed in dollar signs; the owners are not in it for the money, but because they love the animals. Everyone has to make a living.” What is concrete, however, is that the association’s membership has doubled in the last decade, and she expects it to keep growing.

Trends in the industry are also changing. Cremation, rather than burial, is now much more common. The IAOPCC estimates that between 85 percent and 90 percent of pet owners who do not leave their animals to be disposed of by the vet are opting for cremation, instead of in-ground burial. “Years ago, pet burial was more popular than cremation, because cremation wasn’t available. Now it’s been available in some cemeteries for quite a few years, but in some cemeteries, it’s just coming to pass,” says Stephen Drown.

In fact, only 1 percent of Bubbling Well’s business is private burial. Rather, private cremation has become very popular in the past five years. Dan Harberts explains, “We’ve become a society in transit, moving from place to place. If you have your pet cremated, you can take it with you. That’s become a huge draw.”

Private cremation is also a bit cheaper than private burial. Nationwide, cremation prices range from about $40 to $175, and urns from about $55 to $300. Many pet cemeteries have a columbarium, where pet owners can choose to store their pets’ ashes. Bubbling Well, which operates its own cremation facility in Fairfield, offers an original take on the idea, housing cremains in small holes drilled into a stone outcropping, Cathedral Rock, at the cemetery (about $430 includes cremation, interment and plaque).

Harberts has also moved onto the Internet, offering a $25 memorial pet register service, which includes a certificate, an entry in the cemetery’s physical memorial registry and a website in the company’s virtual registry. So far, it looks like the idea is catching on slowly; there are about 90 entries on the site, which mostly include heartfelt text and a pet photo.

Regardless of how much the industry grows and how much its services change in response to new technologies, one thing is certain: it is not going away.

On the windowsill in Bubbling Well’s chapel office are stacked wooden urn samples that Harberts made himself. There are a few different sizes, but they are all engraved with the same name, “Bootsie.” They are an ominous reminder of the lap-warming, loudly purring Bootsie’s ultimate fate. “People don’t know what to make of pet cemeteries until they start thinking about what they’d do when their pet dies,” he says.

Later Harberts reflects, “People bury people because they have to, but they bury pets because they want to. We’re proof that the relationships between people and their pets are truly special. With people, there are complications and conditions.

“With pets, it’s a pure emotion.”

Previous articleWhat I Got
Next articleFirst Bite