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Marilyn McClaskey is used to the astonished comments when she walks her dog Coal.

"I've heard them all. 'You got a saddle for that thing?' 'Who's walking who?' " said McClaskey, 75, of Orono.

A 142-pound Irish wolfhound, Coal has soulful eyes, a wiry black coat and a gentle temperament. Although he's one of an ancient breed favored by Irish chieftains as running dogs that could bring down deer, Coal is so sedate he seldom barks.

"When I have my blood pressure taken I close my eyes and think about gazing into the eyes of my dogs and my blood pressure just drops," she said.

What has unsettled McClaskey recently is the idea of being separated from Coal — and Deirdre, Canute, Clare, Medora, Annie, Emma, Dancer and Blitzen, her eight late Irish wolfhounds — after her death. The retired librarian had chosen to be cremated, but she's been thwarted in her efforts to plan for her ashes to be in the same final resting place as the mortal remains of her beloved dogs.

"I inherited a cemetery plot but I have a terrible longing to have these dogs with me and that's not allowed," she said. "Same thing when I looked on websites for other cemeteries. They say it would be offensive to have pets buried with humans. Offensive to who? Not to me."

Earlier this year, McClaskey found the alternative she had been seeking at Minnesota's first memorial forest. Located on a 112-acre wooded plot in the St. Croix Valley, Better Place Forests offers an alternative to a traditional cemetery.

With no headstones, mausoleums or memorial benches, Better Place allows consumers to select and purchase a tree where their ashes — and those of family members, including pets — can be placed at a future date.

"We will honor whatever religious traditions or rituals people want to bring," said Tori Nonnemacher, general manager of the local forest. "We've had memorials where the ash is placed after a funeral and we've had families with as many as 30 people that do this instead of a celebration of life. They hike into the forest and have a picnic after."

Since last September, 43 "spreadings" have been staged at trees in the secluded forest near Scandia. Nonnemacher explained that the cremains are not scattered but rather mixed with soil from the site and settled in a "nest" at the base of the tree "where it becomes bioavailable to the forest floor," under the supervision of an environment scientist and an arborist who guard the balance of the ecosystem.

"If they want to, families can participate in mixing the soil with the ashes," Nonnemacher said. "They can come back to the tree and visit and think about their loved ones."

Pets as famliy

According to a study by the Cremation Association of North America, 20% to 40% of cremated remains are interred in a cemetery — buried or placed in a columbarium. The rest are scattered elsewhere or kept in an urn.

"Where ashes are placed, buried or scattered is highly personal and reflects the person's values in life," said Michael LuBrant, director of the Program of Mortuary Science at the University of Minnesota Medical School. "The vocabulary we hear people use is that they want an environment that is meaningful to them or where they felt at peace."

While there is ancient archaeological evidence that humans have long been buried with animals, LuBrant said that there is plenty of more recent anecdotes about people sharing their final resting place with their pets.

"We know that family members have done this informally. We hear stories about people placing a pet's cremated remains in a casket without the funeral director ever knowing about it," he said. "They don't ask if the cemetery would permit it."

The contemporary elevation of the role of pets makes it logical that some people would seek a way to include them in their end-of-life decisions and choices, according to Mary Meehan, CEO of Panoramix Global, a Minneapolis-based consumer trend tracking company.

"Lots of people call themselves 'pet parents,'" said Meehan. "Demographically, the marriage rate is dropping and a larger number of people are single, living alone with their pets filling a void. A pet serves as family and it's no surprise they are treated as such, even after death."

Newer options aren't necessarily cheaper

Newer options for burials — including green burial, alternative cremation, memorial forests and other more environmentally friendly innovations — for what the funeral industry calls "final disposition" aren't necessarily cheaper than the traditional options.

While Nonnemacher won't detail the price of purchasing a tree in the Minnesota Better Place Forests, "for competitive reasons," she said that the cost starts at $4,900 and goes up based on the tree type, setting and number of spreadings the consumer purchases.

McClaskey spent $23,000 for the oak tree where her ashes and those of her nine pets will go.

"I've been frugal, so I can afford it, so I did it," said McClaskey. "Some of that money will go to the preservation and renewal of the forest. That's my little part of helping nature after my demise."

A twice-divorced, two-time cancer survivor, McClaskey is in good health and in no hurry to execute her plan. But she feels "a sense of peace" since specifying that the dog remains now stored in individual teak boxes will someday be combined with her own and soil from the forest floor.

"When I was little, I asked if dogs went to heaven and I was told dogs don't have souls. But I knew better. Their souls are much purer than ours," she said. "It feels wonderful to have stated my wishes and know I will be with them, all of us snuggled together and going back to the earth."