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Whether you have a preference for dogs or cats, you can probably guess that a lot of people spend a lot of money on their pets. The U.S. pet care industry earned more than $52 billion in 2011. To put that in more reasonable terms, think of it this way: pet owners spent more on their furry friends than they did on alcohol, handing over at least $450 each.
But what happens when a four-footed companion passes on? One long-running industry — pet cremation — is getting an upgrade to cater to a new market of pet lovers. Could running a pet funeral home be a good business for you?
What’s a Pet Funeral Home?
Many pet cremation services are offered by the same companies that serve grieving families during visitations or burials. Bob Walczyk took his experience in his family funeral home and expanded his business to serve pet lovers as well.
“We just mirror what we’re doing at our regular human funeral home,” he told Businessweek in 2012. Forever Friends, the pet branch of his funeral home, offers 24-hour phone service and requires that employees wear suits and ties at all times.
Coleen Ellis founded the first stand-alone pet funeral home in 2004, and has since become a leading consultant in the pet aftercare industry. She also founded the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance in 2006. It’s a branch of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association that caters to furthering the skills and standards of pet aftercare professionals. About 700 funeral homes, crematories, and cemeteries in the nation cater primarily to pets, according to a 2012 estimate from Businessweek.
Ellis noted that two groups are driving the pet care and pet loss industries: baby boomers with empty nests but plenty of vitality; and millennials who are putting off having children or other notions of “settling down.”
“By spoiling something else, like a pet, they’re spoiling themselves,” she said, especially of the baby boomer set. “These pet parents gave their pet [the best care] in life, and now they want to do the same in death,” Ellis says. “They want a safe place for visitation without shame. They know it’s not ‘just a dog.'”
Think you’d like to serve grieving pet owners? We’ve gathered a few helpful tips before you break into the pet funeral business.
Get to Know Your Target Market
Market research is essential before opening any business, but you’ll want to take special care to consider the needs of pet owners. Look for areas of opportunity: are there services you’ve wanted as a pet parent, such as visitation or memorial mementos, that you don’t see offered in your region?
Ellis notes that offering a “full package” of services is essential to the success of a pet funeral home. A grieving client should only need to make one phone call; so while you may contract out the actual cremation work, you’ll want to offer pickup services, viewing ceremonies, and delivery of final remains.
“My first facility was 1200 square feet in a strip mall, with a chapel and a visitation space,” Ellis said. “You’ll be that person who can offer the little things, like a venue and permission to grieve, to honor and pay tribute. If that’s not being offered in a community, people may not know they need that.”
Save Up Before Starting Your Business
Ellis advises that aspiring pet undertakers have $150,000 on hand — and she bumps that number to $200,000 if you plan to offer cremation services.
“It will take three to five years before you even start to see the fruits of your labors,” she warned. She said that her consulting clients often will have a strong desire to work in this field, but might only have $10,000 on hand. “You need to have more than a passion or a mission. You need money to back it up.”
While regulations for funeral homes and cremation facilities usually aren’t extreme, Ellis explained some of the matters particular to this industry. Check to see where local zoning will allow for a cremation machine. In many cases, a cremation facility will be located in a highly industrial area, not adjacent to the main business location. Then, when searching for space for an office or visitation center, read all the fine print to make sure the lease doesn’t prohibit businesses that deal with death.
Build Key Relationships
“Unless you get the blessing of the veterinarian,” Pat Fahrenkrug wrote for Funeral One’s blog, “You may truly be wasting your money.” Relationships with local veterinarians can make or break a pet funeral home’s business, since many pet lovers — especially those who are suddenly grieving — will trust their vet’s recommendations.
Ellis, meanwhile, says that building relationships directly with customers is just as important as getting on the vet’s good side. “It’s your job to make pet parents aware of your services,” she says, long before they might ever need those services. As a new facility owner, you should take part in community events and meet as many devoted pet owners as you can, as soon as possible.
Above all, she says, a true love of animals will help a pet funeral home succeed. “If you’re not a pet owner, you’re not going to get this.”
Your Turn: Have you ever visited a pet funeral home? Would you consider starting this kind of business?