Raybons give pet owners peace

Andrea Alexander
Caretaker Willie Jones, and Raybon’s Pet Memorial Gardens owners Audrey and Billy Rabon at the entrance to their pet cemetery in Prairieville on Swamp Road.

There is, couched among the tall lush trees and manicured neighborhoods of Swamp Road in Prairieville, a pet cemetery.

Most Ascension Parish residents don’t know it exists. Those who aren’t animal lovers might even wonder why it exists. Why go to such great lengths to ensure that a dog, a cat, a gerbil, a bird will rest in peace? Considering that pets are a source of unconditional love for a lot of people, it’s easier to understand why a pet’s owner may want to bury it – often loved as a member of the family – in a safe, marked, permanent place.

Raybon’s Pet Memorial Gardens, founded in 1987 by Billy and Audrey Raybon, is a site where pets are cremated or laid to rest, sometimes with the high ceremony of a person’s funeral.

“When a pet dies, we have a full-fledged funeral,” says Audrey. “The pet is laid out for viewing before burial. When the client is ready, we take the pet to the cemetery where the grave has been prepared, we say a graveside prayer, and lower the pet into the grave.”

Clients choose the casket (or urn, if pet is cremated), the gravesite, and the headstone. Although the client can opt not to have the funeral service, some clients pull out all the stops to have a formal, well-attended ceremony. Families have been known to have at least 40 people in attendance at their pet’s funeral. One family had their older son, a trumpet player, play “Amazing Grace” during the family pet’s burial procession.

A funeral service usually lasts about 30 minutes. “To our clients, it’s like a child. They take it very hard. It really is a sentimental, emotional event for them,” Audrey said.

“It’s satisfying to know that we can help them. They’re very serious about it. Most people are very thankful that we provide these services, since there’s no other pet cemetery around the area. We get a lot of thank-you’s,” she added.

For a family or person who’s very attached to a pet, it’s reassuring to know that, at Raybon’s Pet Memorial Gardens, the Raybons will always be there to maintain their pet’s grave (a “perpetual care” fee is charged). If the client should move, they won’t be leaving their pet’s gravesite behind. And they can always visit their pet’s resting place.

“Some clients have been visiting their pet’s graves for years. At least four or five times a week, we have someone visiting,” said Billy. One woman travels regularly from St. Francisville to visit and clean her pet’s grave. People travel from as far as Alexandria, New Orleans, Houma, and Pontchatoula to visit their pets, according to Billy.

Sometimes, the client’s requests or funeral rites may be a bit out of the ordinary. Clients have been known to devise their own prayers and rituals. One client read the whole of St. Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians while her pet was buried, another sought to have his pet’s obituary printed in the newspaper, and yet another bought a special infant casket to bury her pet in. The Raybons were even once asked to exhume the remains of a pet buried at their cemetery.

In addition to providing the funeral service and place for burial, the Raybons often provide informal consolation to their clients, who want to share photographs of their pet with the Raybons; they want to talk and tell stories about their pet, sometimes for hours.

Pets are almost always domestic animals; however, it is possible to bury larger animals such as horses in the cemetery. Because of the expense, the Raybons haven’t yet had any requests of that kind.

The Raybons started their pet cemetery business when Billy purchased some property across the street from their home on Swamp Road. The Raybons’ daughter suggested they use it for a pet cemetery. “All of our children were great pet lovers. They were constantly picking up strays,” Audrey said.

At first, Billy and Audrey laughed at the idea of a pet cemetery, but then, on various trips out of state, they would check out pet cemeteries that happened to be near their destination. Both were surprised at the types of pet cemeteries they encountered, including one near an interstate bypass in Montgomery, a cemetery exclusively for coon dogs in Mobile, and a cemetery with mausoleums in Las Vegas.

“About 80 percent of the people I talk to around here have never heard of a pet cemetery,” Billy commented. Most of his business comes by way of local veterinarians, he said.

Although they welcome additional clients and more business, the Raybons are content for now to simply care for the customers they do have. After each funeral service, they mail a sympathy card to their client. “It’s not a fast business, but we have had more business over the years,” Billy said.

Of course, there’s the occasional absurd story that makes Billy shake his head. “One lady had a black cat named Satan. After she chose the gravesite and the casket, we held the funeral service, and read the graveside prayer. It was a strange thing, saying, ‘We return this cat, Satan, to the dear Lord,’” he laughed.

And then there was the woman who, upon learning about the pet cemetery, told Billy she would like to bury her husband there, since he was an “old dog.”

Willie Jones, and Billy and Audrey Rabon stand before several of the more elaborate headstones purchased by owners for their pets in Raybon’s Pet Memorial Gardens in Prairieville.