Kaiser was a good boy.

Allison and Mike Molstre had owned the fawn-colored boxer since he was just a pup and they were just dating. He'd become an important part of the Molstre clan, good-naturedly resigning "first born" status when his human "brothers," Silas and Vance, arrived. He even tolerated the introduction of new puppy, Rocco, then tutored him on the secrets to good canine citizenship.

But then Kaiser started experiencing fainting spells and the 10-year-old canine was diagnosed with a tumor by his heart. The vet told the Molstres it was just a matter of time. Just two days later, Kaiser passed away in the arms of Allison’s mom. It was Allison’s birthday and the house was filled with family.

The Molstres were grief-stricken and not sure what to do with the 75-pound body of their faithful pet. Then Allison thought of a conversation she’d just had with one of her mom’s co-workers. The woman recommended Chris Cantler, who specializes in pet cremations.

“He’s the sweetest, most caring man,” the woman told Allison. “He will treat it with such dignity.”

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Allison called Cantler, who runs Ashes to Ashes Pet Cremations from his farm near Abercrombie, N.D. “He said right away in his calming voice, ‘I am so sorry,’” Allison says. Cantler told her he would pick up Kaiser right away. He also said he would bring her the ashes the next day.

When Cantler arrived, Allison was struck by the compassion he showed to the family and the reverence he showed for Kaiser.

True to his word, Cantler delivered Kaiser’s remains in a black decorative tin, along with a clay impression of his paw print, the next day. Those mementos now sit on a special shelf in the Molstre’s home.

Allison Molstre and her husband Mike and sons Vance, 3, and Silas, 5, are pictured with their miniature Schnauzer Rocco and boxer Kaiser. Special to The Forum
Allison Molstre and her husband Mike and sons Vance, 3, and Silas, 5, are pictured with their miniature Schnauzer Rocco and boxer Kaiser. Special to The Forum

Today, Allison recommends Ashes to Ashes to anyone experiencing the loss of a pet. She found Cantler's cremation bill - just under $200 - to be reasonable and the comfort from his respectful approach to be priceless.

“You could tell he’s just such a good person. He’s soft-spoken,” she says. “We knew that’s who we wanted and who we trusted Kaiser to go home with.”

The Molstres also found Cantler’s pick-up service saved them considerable stress. “You don’t know what to do when something like that happens,” Allison says. “It was on a Sunday. I would have had to leave Kaiser out in our garage that night if Chris wasn’t available. How could I leave him out there?”

It's not a 'Pet Sematary' thing

Operating from a bucolic, tree-framed farmstead near Abercrombie, N.D., Cantler has cremated everything from snakes, gerbils, lizards and finches to llamas, donkeys, pot-bellied pigs, 1,200-pound horses and one 2-inch-long tetra fish.

“People have said, aren’t you kind of leery of having all those dead animals around your place - kind of the whole ‘Pet Sematary’ thing?,” says Cantler, a fit, silver-haired man who looks more like a gym teacher than a pet-cremation specialist. “But man, I try to treat every one of them the same as mine. When I go to pick up from people, there is so much grief there and I always try to make it so that they know their animal is in good hands.”

In fact, if anyone has had a pet cremated through a Fargo-Moorhead veterinary clinic in the last 24 years, chances are good that Cantler did the honors. Before he launched Ashes to Ashes last summer, Cantler worked for a friend who had established contracts with every vet clinic in the metro area. His friend ran the successful business while Cantler did the cremations - at least 25,000 of them, he estimates.

Chris Cantler operates Ashes to Ashes Pet Cremation from his farm near Abercrombie. After cremation, the pet's remains are returned to their owner in a decorative tin. A clay impression of a paw print is also available. Special to The Forum.
Chris Cantler operates Ashes to Ashes Pet Cremation from his farm near Abercrombie. After cremation, the pet's remains are returned to their owner in a decorative tin. A clay impression of a paw print is also available. Special to The Forum.

At their peak, Cantler was doing 500 cremations a month, which left little time for his other vocation: taxidermy. After Cantler and his partner parted ways over salary negotiations last summer, she moved the cremation equipment to her farm and retained the clinic contracts. So Cantler has pretty much had to start over.

That has meant investing in a $50,000 incinerator and hoping his compassionate approach and reasonable rates will attract a new customer base.

As of now, Cantler’s customers range from people whose animals died at home, like Kaiser, to families who are moving and want him to cremate a pet’s previously buried remains. Some vet clinics, but not all, will also work with clients who ask to have Cantler pick up the animal for cremation rather than using their standard cremation service.

"It’s more expensive to go through the clinics because they have a middle man, so they cut out the middle man by coming to me,” he says.

Ashes to Ashes prices vary according to the size of animal, although Cantler estimates he charges about $50 for an animal under 10 pounds and anywhere from $100 to $150 for a larger dog. He will also do pickup and delivery around the Fargo-Moorhead area for $20. A tin for ashes is another $10, as is a clay print of the pet’s paw.

As Cantler is a pet-lover - and has even had to cremate several of his own dogs - he realizes how difficult it is to say goodbye. He works to accommodate all sorts of requests, whether that means burning a favorite blanket with the pet, saying a special prayer before the cremation or retrieving an animal’s orthopedic hardware to return to the owners.

Sometimes people ask Cantler to sprinkle the remains on his own land, which he's happy to do. Once, a family came out with a portion of the remains from a sister who owned the dog he’d cremated. They had a simple ceremony and then sprinkled their ashes together on Cantler’s land.

In some cases, when he knows the animal was a hunting dog, he packs the remains inside an empty shell box so the owners can sprinkle them on a favorite hunting spot.

Are those really Fluffy's ashes?

There’s one request that Cantler won’t fill: allowing owners view the cremation process.

"I tell them this is not the last memory they want to have of their pet," he says. "Most seem to be OK with that.”

The crematorium itself is a large, black, box-shaped appliance, measuring about 5 feet tall and 4 feet deep. Cantler uses fuel oil to create temperatures hot enough for cremation: 1000 to 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. The system includes an afterburner that turns the smoke into a virtually odorless, clear emission that is released from an 18-foot-tall smokestack and meets state air-quality standards, Cantler says.

It takes about 2 ½ hours to cremate a small animal, like a cat, but Cantler has to wait another few hours until the chamber is cool enough to enter. Any remaining bone fragments are processed into a fine powder so the ash can be stored in a container. When done, a black lab’s remains will be about the size of a man’s fist, Cantler says.

Although some owners request mass cremation, most request individual ones. In those cases, Cantler tags each animal and places it in its own compartment, to ensure the owner gets the ashes of their pet.

When shopping for his crematorium, Cantler was surprised by the number of equipment dealers who told him how many larger companies handle cremations. They'll do mass cremations, then take out the equivalent ash to equal a 10-pound cat’s remains and return those to owners.

Cantler says he knows of one Minneapolis firm that has started using refrigerated trucks to do mass pick-ups of pet bodies throughout Minnesota to cremate at a central location. Although services like this are cheaper, Cantler says it's harder to discern that cremations done on such a large scale truly contain the specific remains of a particular pet.

"Everybody wants to make as much money as they can," he says, shaking his head. "I'm hoping it doesn't come to that."