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Dogs at funeral homes offer comfort to mourners

JOYCE HANZ, Valley News Dispatch

APOLLO, Pa. — Sometimes comfort needed during a person’s hardest times can come simply from petting a dog.

When David Heasley of Gilpin found himself making funeral arrangements last year for a close relative at Curran-Shaffer Funeral Home in Apollo, he met Chester.

Chester, a Shih Tzu, has served as a “comfort dog” at Curran’s for four years, visiting with grieving families making final arrangements, attending viewings and even showing up at funerals at the family’s request.

“He provided a calming presence,” Heasley said. “His sweet spirit eased our minds and lifted our spirits.”

Chester was once a homeless pup, showing up matted and grungy at a random Saltsburg residence in 2012.

Martha Matarrese, administrative assistant at Curran-Shaffer, was mourning the recent death of her dog, a Jack Russell terrier. Her niece put her in contact with Chester, who was in need of a home.

“I wasn’t even sure I was ready for another dog,” Matarrese said. “But the moment he came over and stood at my feet, I knew that I was taking this dog home.”

Chester is estimated by his veterinarian to be “8 or 9 years old,” said Matarrese, a Lower Burrell resident.

Whatever name Chester answered to is a mystery, but he was christened Chester after Matarrese was inspired by his chestnut-colored coat.

She is confident Chester was likely abused; he was skittish and afraid when she adopted him.

“Chester is afraid of loud noises and is still skittish, but he mingles well with families at the funeral home,” Matarrese said. “I think Chester helping those grieving is actually therapy for him. And he doesn’t bark — that’s good.”

She began bringing him to work at the funeral home in Apollo in 2012.

Although Chester doesn’t have official therapy dog training papers, don’t tell him, because he rules the rooms he roams at the funeral home that is his second home.

When Chester isn’t with people, he relaxes in a wingback chair, draped with a personalized blanket and assorted dog toys at the ready.

He loves receiving treats, especially raw carrots and beef jerky. Matarrese said he even munches on salad.

But more often you will find him mingling among visitors, comforting families, according to funeral director Norm Connors.

“Chester is very calming,” Connors said. “He will sit on laps. And when I sense a family is receptive to dogs, we bring Chester out.”

A growing trend

Funeral homes offering therapy dogs for comfort is a growing trend said Connors.

“My friend owns a funeral home in Milwaukee, and they have a therapy dog there,” he said.

The National Funeral Directors Association does not keep statistics on comfort dogs in funeral homes, but spokeswoman Jessica Koth said the association is noticing an uptick in dogs offering support to mourners.

“Our members are telling us that the response from families is overwhelmingly positive,” Koth said. “The animals put families at ease and break the tension when they come in to make arrangements for a loved one.

“The power of an animal to change the mood of a room is powerful, and funeral directors are discovering how they can use that to promote healthy healing in people who are grieving the death of a loved one.”

Prompting a hug

Frank Kapr said his 6-year-old Yorkie, Rylee, isn’t a licensed therapy dog but is still a fixture at Frank Kapr Funeral Home in Scottdale. He’ll instinctively be there to comfort mourners.

“It’s amazing what they can do; they can sense the person out who’s grieving the most, and they go to them,” Kapr said.

He recalled a time that Rylee, unasked, hopped up on a particularly upset woman’s lap, prompting a hug.

“(The woman’s) whole demeanor just changed,” he said. “A lot of people will even ask for her.”

Back in the Kiski Valley, Chester often travels to other Curran-Shaffer funeral home locations in Leechburg and Vandergrift to comfort mourners.

Families may request Chester’s presence, and his services are free.

“Chester is very intuitive,” Heasley said. “I think every funeral home should have a dog offering comfort.”