Going Out in Style

UPDATED 02/01/1993 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/01/1993 at 01:00 AM EST

GROWN MEN AND WOMEN WEPT WHEN Charlie Lindbird, the ring-necked pheasant who gained fame by chasing planes taking off at Jacksonville's Craig Field, met a messy end in a propeller blade in 1979. A local flying traffic reporter organized a funeral but felt Charlie deserved more than a cardboard box.

Thanks to Dennis Hoegh, 59, owner of Hoegh Industries, the world's leading manufacturer of coffins for the fur-and-feather set, Charlie went to his final reward in dignified style indeed in one of Hoegh's Very Important Pet caskets. Built of high-impact molded plastic with a hinged top, a padded interior and a lace-trimmed pillow, the $250, 24-inch VIP model is just one of 30,000 pet coffins and urns Hoegh's Gladstone, Mich., company produces annually.

With the help of his wife and business partner, Jeanne, 57, and eight employees, Hoegh does a $750,000-a-year business providing caskets and urns to pet cemeteries—some as far away as Japan. He also sells caskets directly to the bereaved, such as the Colorado truck driver whose Doberman was run over when it jumped out of his rig, and the Oklahoma family that wanted to bury their prized pet turkey. For prices ranging from $10 to $300, Hoegh's customers can choose from a hamster-size box to a casket roomy enough for a German shepherd, and urns shaped like doghouses or the Grecian urn of antiquity.

A onetime Iowa food-sales representative, Hoegh got into the pet-burial business in 1966 after meeting a dog owner who had been unable to find an appropriate casket for a pooch long passed. Hoegh vowed to fill the vacuum. "I knew that's what I had to do," he says. After having his first caskets built, he began searching for backers. But many found his product macabre: One banker recoiled when Hoegh tried to show him a schnauzer-size coffin. "He starts waving his hands, 'No, no!' " recalls Hoegh, who eventually combined a government loan with private investments. "I showed him anyway."

Today he's dead certain that demand for his product can only expand. After all, little more than 1 percent of pets now receive cemetery burials. "I don't think we've even scratched the surface," he says.

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