In a serene setting where a fountain gently murmurs and soft music plays in the background, reality hits and often tears flow.
That’s the moment when grieving pet owners realize that the days of fetching balls and tossing toys, soft purrs and agile leaps, nuzzles and tail wags are no more.
Deb Chebatoris, who has owned at 442 Washington Ave. in Bridgeville for the last six years, helps them cope with that transition — the visual realization that their pets are truly gone. Her business is just one of about a half dozen pet crematories in western Pennsylvania, according to www.pet-loss.net. Chebatoris goes beyond cremation services by offering a comfortable place for owners to have final closure in dealing with a pet’s death.
The McMurray resident would have seemed an unlikely person to choose this line of work.
“I’ve always been allergic to dogs and cats,” said Chebatoris, who previously was a certified public accountant in the health care industry. “I just really felt I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.”
Her journey to this profession started as a soccer mom conversation about having a dog cremated, and that the woman who had run a local cremation business for 18 years was trying to sell it. Chebatoris said the thought wouldn’t leave her, and she soon inquired about possibly buying the business, which at that point only involved facilitating the pet’s journey to and from a crematory. Allergies were her biggest concern, but after accompanying the woman on several trips to pick up deceased animals, nothing happened — even in a home with eight cats.
She recalls thinking, “I guess this is God’s way to tell me this is something I could do.”
Chebatoris put together a business plan, bought a nine-ton cremation unit, secured the required permits and rented the divided storefront where Furry Friends, a pet groomer next door, once had retail space.
What amazed her was the way things fell together. One day, spur of the moment, she stopped at Sharp’s Furniture Store on Route 19 and found “a chair that looked like a hug."
Later, she found a double rocker with a design that was similar to a piece of furniture her mother owned. A candelabra from TJ Maxx matched the pattern of a rug she purchased at Home Depot.
“This was a very spirit-driven business,” said Chebatoris, her eyes tearing up. “It just came. It really did.
“It wasn’t a voice or anything. This space happened, just facilitated by me.”
And beyond the harsh reality of the business she runs is where Chebatoris has found her calling. It’s reflected in the soft and caring voice that answers the phone, the true sympathy she expresses for the losses and the loving care she gives to each pet entrusted to her.
“Once you have trusted me with your pet, your pet never leaves my care,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges came just about four months after Chebatoris opened the service, when she faced cremating her own dog, Louie, a schnauzer, which is one of the few breeds that doesn’t cause allergic reactions. It took her a few days to work up the courage to undertake the effort.
“That helped me see how hard it is to part with our pets,” she said.
One woman who rescues feral cats has requested Chebatoris’ services 27 times. The largest pets that have come to Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation are a pot-bellied pig and a Dogo Argentino, a 165-pound canine that was all muscle.
The most unusual and smallest pets Chebatoris has cremated were sugar gliders, small Australian marsupials. It really doesn’t matter if the pet was a parrot, ferret or lizard with character — an affectionate dog or a cat that got pleasure out of swiping at its owner.
“It’s a relationship, whether it’s based on affection or antagonism,” Chebatoris said. “You just get attached to them.”
For some people, the loss of a pet is harder to deal with than the loss of a parent. And Chebatoris listens as they express their guilt about that. In some cases, the pets were more an everyday part of their lives, she said.
“They depend on us. We depend on them.”
Sometimes, caring people with no relationship to the pet have brought animals in for cremation. A woman brought in a dead cat she found, gave it a name and paid for the cremation.
Some pet owners choose a fabric and have Chebatoris create a pouch decorated with a ribbon, flower and a small bag containing some of their pet’s fur. Some owners choose from among the 250 urns and boxes, ranging from elegant to whimsical designs, or garden stones with words and images. Others choose jewelry or a blown-glass paperweight that contain some of the cremains.
Each family says “goodbye” differently.
Those who want a permanent memory can pay in the thousands of dollars to have a diamond pressed from carbon gathered from the cremains, Chebatoris said.
Some take a lighter approach. One man came in and tucked the pouch containing his dear pet into his pocket, she recalls.
“He said, ‘My dog’s getting his first motorcycle ride.’”