‘People really appreciate what we’re doing’

What I learnt from visiting a bespoke pet crematorium in York...

(Image: Dan Gordon-Potts)

“As far as pet crematoriums go, our service is a little bit more bespoke.” These are the words of Theresea, speaking to me a few months ago when I went to visit.

Theresea, along with her husband, Paul, live and work at Mill Cottage Pet Crematorium in York.

Located on Windmill Lane on the edge of the University’s campus, the cottage is as picturesque as it sounds, sitting up a winding driveway, opposite the cycle track and footpath which goes through the science and business park. 

The crematorium sits neatly alongside their home, in a converted and extended garage, on a mound by the ruins of what used to be a windmill. Here, they also have a small, cosy reception room. This is where I met Theresea and sat down with her to chat about the business.

“I used to be an undertaker and a funeral director for humans,” she tells me, “that’s where the idea has come from.”

Theresea sits across from me at her welcome desk. Behind her is a wall covered in pictures of pets, which, I learn later, is a memory wall of some of the many pets who have passed through.

She says she started out working as an undertaker for humans, and, before you assume, she defends herself saying “I’m not creepy – I just enjoy it!” 

Despite being good at her job, she says she was encouraged to shift careers and become a funeral director. She tells me she thinks this was partly because she was 5ft 4, which isn’t a particularly great height for carrying coffins. 

Being admittedly shorter, and one of the few women in that particular line of work, she agreed to switch things up and became a funeral director full time. However, she soon realised she didn’t enjoy it as much. 

“It was more about selling funerals, which wasn’t what I was into. I spent my days thinking how can I leave this job and do something I want to do?”

Whatever job she did next, she was tired of commuting, so wanted to do it from home.

“I said to Paul, my husband, can we open a funeral home?” 

Paul, who worked as a driving instructor at the time said, “I’m not sharing the house with dead people!” In other words, a fairly solid (but understandable) no.

So, she continued working as a funeral director. Then, she had the opportunity to take part in a festival, aptly named Dead Good Festival, in York. This fairly niche week-long event, as you can probably predict, is all to do with death. 

“The local crematorium do things, everyone does things,” Theresea says.

It was here that she found out about providing services for pets, the very real experience of pet grief, and because of this, she began to do some research. When she suggested the idea of running a pet crematorium to Paul in 2019, he was up for it.

So, they began saving – Theresea quit her job and joined her husband working as a driving instructor. 

“It totally bored me to death!” she says, recounting it all to me now. But, she tells me, she is grateful for having done it as it helped her and her husband save enough money to start the business without relying on any loans.

When the pandemic kicked off at the end of 2019 and everything went into chaos, Theresea says that set everything back a bit, but, in a way, it also helped move things forwards.

Although she had the idea for setting up a pet crematorium, she hadn’t figured out where she’d actually base the business. They only found out about Mill Cottage when they went through what we all experienced: lockdown boredom.

“When we first went into lockdown, our eldest came to stay with us. We had a couple of dogs and would take them for walks – up around the university and that cycle track [she gestures], over there. We’d see this place, but it was all so overgrown we couldn’t actually tell what was behind [it].”

She says they dared each other to take a look, and then saw the cottage, run down, and clearly vacant. It dawned on them – they suddenly saw in front of them the perfect opportunity for their new business idea.

They got in contact with the landowner, Halifax estates, which owns a fair amount of the land around the University area, and they agreed to renovate the building, gut it, and clear up all the surrounding overgrowth. When she told them about her business idea, they were more than happy for her to set it up, and, it turned out, charge them very reasonable rent.

They opened their doors in September 2022, but they were still trying to wind down their driving school business, which was more difficult than they thought it would be. Some of their students struggled to pass their tests, but, business-savvy as she is, Theresea recognised that there was an opportunity to spread the word about their new business by keeping going with their pupils and not shutting down too soon. 

During lockdown, Theresea explains that the land where the cottage is now situated was “all so overgrown we couldn’t actually tell what was behind”
(Image: Dan Gordon-Potts)

“I thought some [of our pupils] had parents and grandparents with pets, so I couldn’t cut ties – we had to see it through.”

Simultaneously managing a driving school business and a pet crematorium was, as you’d expect, not that easy; “We’d be driving down the road and someone would call and I’d think ‘that’s a potential client!’”

Now though, she doesn’t have to worry. They finished their final driving tests in April last year, and since then, they have been focused on running Mill Cottage full time.

Theresea, her husband Paul, and their children, who have all helped out at various points with the business, have set out to do something different with Mill Cottage.

“We care, and that’s the difference between us and a bigger place,” she says.

With every person that comes through Mill Cottage, and every dog, cat, mouse, hamster or any other pet, Theresea and Paul try to make the experience as personal as possible. From doing custom pawprints, to locks of hair, and even an ink print of an entire pet snake for owners to take as memories (the latter looked particularly impressive when I saw a picture), they go above and beyond providing a high quality service for grieving pet owners by “keeping it small.”

Pet cremations happen one at a time, which means there is no chance your pets ashes will end up with others. This is significant, as it is very common for pets to be cremated en masse at bigger corporate pet crematoriums. The ashes you get from them, Theresea says, “nine times out of ten, are not just your pet.”

As well as providing keepsakes, Theresea also lets other local businesses advertise and provide their own pet-keepsake services – everything from framed paw-moulds, to jewellery filled with ashes and ashes-stuffed ‘memory dogs’. 

I see examples of their work on a shelf in the room, and across from me, two stuffed ‘memory dogs’ (like stuffed toys, if you’re wondering) – these are Theresea’s own, Spot and Pip, who passed away a few years ago, and now sit in the corner behind her desk.

When Mill Cottage was featured in the local press last year, Theresea says they received comments from people online, questioning what on earth they’re doing, or assuming that their prices would be extortionate. 

But, Theresea tells me, they don’t mind the criticism. 

“If people have got pets, they understand what we do,” she tells me, “we get thank you cards – people really appreciate what we’re doing.”

People appreciate them so much that they even come back – just to pop in and say hi. Part of the reason seems to be because they really go above and beyond. 

Theresea always keeps in contact with the owners and checks up on them to make sure they are ok throughout the process. Because they are such a small business, they are always on call, supporting owners. They are always ready to pick up, arrange drop offs, or collections from the vets. Theresea and her daughter are also trained in bereavement counselling, so they can offer emotional and psychological support through their clients’ grieving. 

They don’t store the bodies either, but give owners plenty of time to say goodbye. If they want, she’s even gone as far as putting them on loudspeaker if they want to say final prayers to their pets before they go, and she always lets them put letters or photographs in with their pets if they wish.

Everything at Mill Cottage is in the details, and everything is thoughtfully planned out. 

While running this sort of service can be serious and quite sad, Theresea also tells me that there are also plenty of funny moments – as there often are when people are going through extreme emotions of grieving and loss.

“We do get some people that come in the night before with their pet, and they ring the next morning and ask “how is he?” and I’m like, well, he’s still dead…I don’t know what you want me to say? So mostly I say “well, he’s fine!” and they’re like “am I being stupid?””

Of course, it all makes sense to Theresea, “I’m just like – they want some sort of reassurance.”

Reassurance is definitely what they provide at Mill Cottage, and a real sense that cold corporations really shouldn’t be in the cremation business at all. 

“Some people will say they want specific things – like little toys to put in the casket. If you go to a big company, they’re not gonna remember you or your toy, or any instruction – you ring up and ask to say a prayer and you’ll probably be told to do one.” 

Thanks to Theresea and Paul for meeting me for this article and giving me a tour.

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