PLANTATION, Fla. (AP) — In a drizzling rain, family and friends gather around an open grave to bid farewell to Rusty.
The 5-year-old dachshund from Boca Raton died after suffering an injury to his spinal cord that surgery could not fix.
The tearful send-off, held at the Broward Pet Cemetery in Plantation, is proof some bereaved pet owners will spare no expense in securing a special resting place for their animal companions.
But these days, with the economy in recession, fewer pet lovers are willing to spring for such a pricey farewell. Business is down at all three South Florida pet cemeteries, in Plantation, Boca Raton and Miami, managers and owners say.
"In this economy, who can afford it?" said Karen Mintz, who lives in Weston with her out-of-work husband and 10-year-old son.
The family spent hundreds to bury two beloved cats in a companion plot at the Broward Pet Cemetery. The two felines they have now won't get the same treatment.
"We'll have them cremated because it's cheaper than having a burial plot and a headstone," said Dan Mintz, who was laid off last year from his property appraiser job with Broward County.
Sandy Ketcham, the manager at Broward Pet Cemetery in Plantation, said she typically handled 30 funerals a year, but that number has dropped along with the economy.
"People don't have the money to spend like they used to," she said. "The economy has affected everybody. People are pinching their pennies."
Burial costs can easily reach $1,000 or more at most pet cemeteries, including the Tri-County Humane Society Pet Cemetery in Boca Raton.
"We try to offer something for everyone, because of the cost," said Susan Richards, the agency's assistant director. "Their pets are part of their family. We want everyone to be able to give their pets (a proper send-off) in the way they can afford."
At the Tri-County cemetery, burial plots cost $700, caskets start at $150, and the mandatory "perpetual care" maintenance fee is $900.
Private cremations, urn included, start at $210 and increase in price based on the weight of the animal. Communal cremations are $100 and up.
Still, some say a proper burial for a beloved companion is worth the price.
"It's hard when you lose a friend," said Ketcham, who presided over Rusty's funeral, saying a short prayer and comforting the grieving owners.
"He was the sweetest dog," said Michael Martin, who adopted Rusty when he was just a pup. "Never nipped or bit anyone."
The Martins have already buried two pets at the cemetery in Plantation. When their dachshund Barney died in 2005, Martin said he came for a visit and "fell in love with the place."
More than 2,500 pets, mostly dogs and cats, have been laid to rest at the 2-acre oasis northwest of Hiatus Road and Broward Boulevard. Before the burial, the owner and friends can spend a few private moments alone with the pet in a viewing room.
Pink and lavender flowers, cherubs and angels adorn the graves. Row after row of marble headstones, some dating to 1968, grace the grounds. Some are heart shaped. Some bear crosses or Stars of David.
All are etched with loving epitaphs.
To Rocky: "Daddy's little boy, sleep in peace my son." To Pudgy: "We will always love you." To Macho: "Our little angel, always in our hearts."
To those, one more will be added, in tribute to Rusty.
For the owners, it's a comfort to know they can always come visit. Said Ketcham: "There's a lot of love out there."
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