By Jon Bleiweis
The youngest staff member at the Candle Light Funeral Home by Craig Witzke in Catonsville doesn’t speak much.
He enjoys carrots and has a bed under a table in the office.
He’s described as friendly and provides a sense of support and relief for guests and staff.
He’s Bentley, a 1-year-old, 6-pound Maltese.
His owner, Ashley Witzke, is a funeral assistant at Candle Light. The dog goes wherever she goes as her certified emotional support animal.
Bentley is not to be confused with a service animal, said Witzke, who explained she has a brain condition that can cause dizziness, blurry vision and muscle weakness.
“He’s just supposed to put a smile on your face,” she said.
When she approached her father, Craig, about having Bentley at the funeral home, he was on board, believing the dog had healing qualities.
It’s the first time Witzke has had a dog on staff. While Candle Light Funeral Home by Craig Witzke has been in business for two years at its Frederick Road location, the Witzke family has been in the profession since 1912.
Ashley Witzke, 21, thought of the idea after she saw a golden retriever visit her aunt while she was at a nursing home. She wanted to make the atmosphere at the funeral home more comforting for those who are grieving.
“It just takes that feeling of grief away,” she said. “It distracts them for a little bit.”
Craig Witzke said Bentley, who is hypoallergenic, is usually the first staff member to greet a visitor.
During business hours, Bentley can be found in the lobby or by the front door when someone approaches. Families may request that he be there during visitation or a service, Craig Witzke said.
Since Bentley has been on board, he said families have come back to the funeral home as long as six months after a funeral to check on their canine friend or to give him a toy.
“When a family walks through the door here and they’re going through a very tough and emotional time,” he said. “To watch them walk in the door and smile, you’ve made a connection already.”
David J. Weber, a past president and spokesman for the Maryland State Funeral Directors Association, said dogs at funeral homes are a growing national trend. He has heard of several in Indiana, Ohio and New York and knows of one other in Maryland, in Frederick.
He said the idea was unusual, but cutting edge and innovative.
And while the dog may not be for some families — whether it be due to allergies or a lack of interest — for others it could be invaluable, he said.
“Often times people just need to feel loved and the dogs will do that 24-7 if you let them,” he said.
Debbie Boer, of Catonsville, lost a loved one in June. Bentley was on site on the night of visitation and the day of the funeral.
“To see Bentley there, it just made you feel better,” she said. “He’s such a real spirited, nice and friendly dog.”
Marie Huntzinger, of Manchester, attended four funerals at the funeral home in the last two years. Bentley was at three of them.
“When you came in, he kind of lifted you up and almost immediately took your mind off why you were there,” she said.
Janey Zakowski, an administrative assistant at the funeral home, which has done about 120 funerals this year, said Bentley makes life a little more cheerful.
“This can be a bit depressing,” she said about working in the industry. “So I think he’s good for the entire staff.”
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