When Gracie died suddenly on Jan. 15, her people didn’t know what to do with her.

At 135 pounds, the red-tick coon hound was too big for Julie and Jeff Burton to bury in the hard ground.

“We called the Animal Emergency Center (in Bettendorf) and they told us about this place in Geneseo, (Ill.),” Julie Burton, of Rock Island, said. “The guy came within 40 minutes, even brought a stretcher, and returned the cremains the next day.

“He hugged me and said he was sorry for our loss. He treated Gracie like a member of our family, which she was.”

The guy is Brett VanDeWoestyne, director of cremations for Vandemore Pet Crematory. The crematory is like a miniature funeral home that’s connected to the human Vandemore Funeral Home on East Ogden Avenue.

Opened in 2009, the pet crematory has been picking up business, month by month. VanDeWoestyne said pet lovers are becoming more inclined all the time to acknowledge the depth of their loss.

“The first thing some people will say is: ‘Thanks for understanding. We felt silly,’ ” he said. “But I understand. The emotions back here in the pet crematory are no different than the ones upfront in the funeral home.

“It’s the loss of a loved one — simple as that. We treat it that way.”

Looking at pictures of Gracie, there can be no doubt about her role in the Burtons’ family. Photo after photo shows she clearly was not hung up on her size, stretching full out on the couch (covered by a blanket in some cases), laid out against her “dad’s” leg or trying to squeeze her considerable self onto his lap.

Before the 10-year-old was cremated, VanDeWoestyne placed one of Gracie’s paws in ink and pressed it onto her cremation certificate. Jeff Burton used the image for a tattoo on his chest.

We’re talking love. And many of us can relate.

“Two out of three homes in America have pets in them, versus the three out of 10 that have children,” VanDeWoestyne said. “We answer the phone every day of the week. When people are grieving, there’s no difference.

“We’ve cremated pet snakes, iguanas, pot-bellied pigs — everything.”

A wall display at the crematory gives a good idea of what “everything” means. Rows of glass shelves contain a dozen varieties of urns, including some large enough to hold the remains of additional pets that pass later. There are even pet caskets and jewelry that is made by adding cremains to glass.

The actual crematory is called “private,” which means that only one pet is cremated at a time. In an “individual” crematory, multiple animals are placed in separate sections inside the furnace, and VanDeWoestyne said ashes can “mingle” in that situation.

There’s even a viewing window over the crematory so people can ensure that their pet is going in alone. In almost three years, no one has done so, but VanDeWoestyne said people appreciate that they can.

VanDeWoestyne said he sometimes picks up deceased pets, and others are delivered. Either way, the cremains are returned to the family within 48 hours (“Usually the next day.”). The cost is based on the size of the pet.

Gracie’s cremation cost the Burtons $260, which included picking her up at home and returning her cremains in Vandemore’s standard pet urn. The crematory can handle pets up to 300 pounds.

Given the increasing popularity of personal pet cremations, dog parks and pet specialty stores, it would seem a matter of time before more pet cemeteries start popping up like the one in Hinsdale, Ill.

The 86-year-old Chicago-area pet cemetery is the final resting place for thousands of pets of all species. It even contains headstones “of the finest granite” and seasonal grave coverings.

Too much? Not for the Burtons and so many others like them.

“Gracie’s favorite song was ‘I Feel Pretty,’ ” Julie Burton said.

And I don’t doubt it.

Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or bickes@qctimes.com.