WAITE PARK -- Between them, Russ Karasch and Marc Kelash have over six decades in the funeral business.

They're also self-described 'pet lovers.'

In the spring of 2019, the two opened Companions Forever, located at 233 34th Ave S. in Waite Park. It's central Minnesota's only private pet cremation service.

"We wanted to give back to the community," Kelash says. "I've had pets my whole life. So has Russ. And one of the things we wanted to do is treat them with respect."

Kelash says the goal was to provide a human-like approach to pet loss. When a pet is euthanized in a veterinary clinic, the body is stored in a freezer for up to a week until a disposal service arrives. Families typically receive cremated remains 10 days after death.

Abby Faulkner, WJON

"I didn't like the idea of my loved one sitting in a chest freezer," Kelash says. "It's hard to think that way, but that's what it is. We wanted to be the ones to say, 'okay, let's do something different."

Companions Forever will pick pets up from vet clinics and homes within a 65 mile radius of St. Cloud. Cremation services are performed on human-grade equipment operated by Karasch and Kelash, both licensed crematory operators, and equipment can hold animals up to 220 lbs. Kelash and Karasch say, under no circumstances, will they cremate more than one animal at a time.

"We don't have a communal service. That's not an option for us," Karasch says. "We use the human model."

The facility offers a comfort room with plush furniture and low lighting for families to spend time with their pets before they are euthanized. They can also use the room to spend time with their pet's body before cremation begins.

Russ Karasch and Marc Kelash discuss Companions Forever

"I've found, when a pet passes and (families) bring them in, they need a place to say goodbye," Karasch says.

"Some people take five minutes, others half an hour," Kelash says. "It's open for them to do their own grieving."

Once cremation is complete, the men aim to return remains within 1-2 days. Ashes are returned in a wooden urn, along with a picture postcard, a clipping of the pet's fur and a paw print.

"In the healing process, the grieving only begins when the remains come back," Karasch says. "That's your loved one in there. We want to make sure they're taken care of."

To learn more, visit Companions Forever's website.