In the middle of a busy day in early December, Angel Askins came out of a gas station to find someone waiting for her in the parking lot. “Are you Angel?” the woman asked. Askins had only popped inside to grab something to drink, but it was long enough for the stranger to park herself next to the blue van with the Angel’s Pet Funeral Home & Crematory logo on it.
“Yes, I’m Angel,” Askins responded.
The other woman started gushing. “I just wanted to say thank you. I saw your van out here and waited to talk to you, because I love what you guys do. You took care of my dog when she died two years ago and it meant so much to me, I wanted to thank you again.”
This kind of thing happens to Askins a lot. “People come up to me at Woofstock, at the dog park, they tell their vets about us … what we do means a lot to them.”
“Pet Grief is Very Real”
From the outside, Angel’s doesn’t look much different than any other funeral home. With its large windows, peaked roof, tidy lawn and seasonal wreaths on the doors, the modest brick building would fit neatly into any suburban neighborhood. Like in other funeral homes, the foyer is decorated in warm, soothing colors, comfortable without drawing too much attention to itself. Like other funeral homes, there’s an air of solemnity around Angel’s, the sense that this is a place for sad smiles and hushed conversations.
Unlike other funeral homes, the official greeter here is a dog. Specifically, a 100-lb. Bernese Mountain Dog named Crosby who stands to meet each newcomer before returning to his spot on the floor. His brother Yadi, another Bernese, hangs out in the chapel with a miniature Australian shepherd named Tom Cruise, while a small striped cat snoozes in the corner of an armchair.
Angel’s is the only funeral home in Tulsa entirely dedicated to pets. While there are other places in town that offer crematory services for pets, they are attached to human funeral homes or exist as standalone crematories. “I wanted to do more than just cremations,” Askins said. “I wanted a whole funeral home: viewing rooms, chapel, everything.”
Both viewing rooms include comfortable couches, chairs, plenty of tissues and a raised wooden pet bed for the deceased. Askins said many people opt to bring other pets to visitations. “The four-legged siblings can come and get to know what happened to their friend, so it’s not just like they left the house and never came back.”
The rooms can also be used for euthanasia, as an alternative to the vet’s office. After going through the euthanasia process with many pets herself, Askins said it was important to her to offer this option. “At the vet’s, you walk out of the office sobbing into a lobby full of people all staring at you. Here, you’re in a place where everyone understands what you’re going through.”
That sense of understanding is central to Askins’s model. “I think that’s what sets us apart, that we get why you’d be so upset over losing your dog. People without pets don’t always understand it, but pet grief is very real.” For that reason, one of the services the funeral home offers is a monthly grief recovery meeting, led by a therapist certified in dealing with pet loss. “It’s therapeutic just to hear other people going through the same thing and to know you’re not crazy.”
Even when clients have wishes other pet owners might see as extreme, Askins doesn’t judge them. “We get all kinds of people here. Some are so freaked out about death they won’t even drive here with their pet in their car, while others want to watch you put the pet into the crematory.”
Some people even bring a book and sit next to the crematory through the whole process, Askins said, though the adjoining building that holds the machines lacks the coziness of the funeral home proper. “It’s noisy, and in the summer it’s hot, but some people want to watch us put their dog or cat into the crematory to make sure they’re getting their own animal back, and that’s perfectly fine,” Askins said.
That degree of wariness might seem excessive to some, but it was only four years ago that a sheriff’s deputy in Okmulgee County found more than 40 animals burning in a pile by the side of the road, with tags that traced back to Pets at Peace, another animal crematory in Tulsa. “People have had bad experiences with other pet crematories over the years. I couldn’t live with myself if we didn’t do things the right way, but that’s why people are welcome to watch if they want to. Whatever they need to feel OK.”
“It Was Just Supposed To Be a Summer Job”
Growing up on a farm in Paris, Arkansas, Askins saw death as a normal part of life. “Sometimes baby calves don’t make it. It’s sad, but it happens,” she said. As one of six kids in her family, she also experienced more human deaths than many kids do. When she was only eight years old, her older brother’s baby died of SIDS. “Even though he was only three months old, he and I had a special bond. I could always make him smile.” After he died, Askins dreamed for three nights in a row that it wasn’t real, only to experience the loss all over again when she woke up. “Going through that at such a young age, I think it helped me to understand that life goes on, even when you don’t want it to.”
At 17, Askins started working at a human funeral home, helping out in the office. “It was only supposed to be a summer job, but I ended up learning how to embalm, how to wait on families, how to work funerals, everything.” Something about the job clicked with her, so when she had the opportunity to continue working for school credit as part of a cooperative education program, she took it. After graduation, she went to mortuary school in Dallas where she studied everything from anatomy and chemistry to funeral service law, business management, and restorative art. From there, she got a job at a funeral home back in Arkansas with a man who became her mentor.
Her first real job allowed her to fulfill a lifelong dream: She got a dog. “On the farm, we had barn cats and hunting dogs, but they all had jobs. I wanted a dog of my own so badly.” She fell in love with a cocker spaniel named George who kept her company through job changes, marriage and divorce. “I just loved that dog so freaking much,” Askins said. When he died, she buried him in a baby casket on her family’s farm. Because she was working at a funeral home at the time, she even made him a grave marker with his picture on it. “He’s the only dog I ever buried; the rest I cremated. My family doesn’t own the farm anymore, but his grave marker is still there.”
The experience of burying her beloved dog on land that later passed out of her family may have triggered Askins’s first notions about pet funeral services, but it was her third dog, a Bernese Mountain Dog named Maggie, whose death sparked the idea to open up a pet funeral home. “I had been working in funeral services my entire life, and when she died, I thought, it’s a shame that we don’t have anything for pets like we do for humans.”
Though Askins has built her business around serving pets, the human element is still the heart of what she does. For many of her clients, handling a beloved pet’s end-of-life care is the first time they have to make decisions like these. “My goal is to give them a very positive experience here so that if they ever have to responsible for making human funeral arrangements, they feel OK about it.” Even many vets, Askins says, don’t realize how much people need what Angel’s offers. “It’s that hug or personal touch, someone to sit with them and listen to stories about their dog. It’s all part of the grieving process. And this is what I was trained to do. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life.”