I adopted my pet hedgehog a few years ago. His name was Oliver, and he was the first pet that I was old enough to care for on my own. His small, skittery steps were a welcome sound in the lonely apartment I lived in during my junior year of college. And he quickly became a comforting, albeit prickly, presence in my life as I pushed through my senior year, graduated, and eventually struggled to adjust to adult life.

That meant I was quite upset when I went to check on him one morning in late November and found him stiff, cold, and what looked like peacefully asleep. I had never faced the death of a pet before, and I struggled to process it. My roommates were quick to offer words of comfort, but all I could say was, “What do we do now? There’s a dead hedgehog in our apartment.” My apartment off of 16th Street Mall certainly didn’t feature a spot to bury Oliver. And I didn’t want to have his body linger in the space. Is there an animal morgue? I thought to myself.

Turns out, there is. After a quick Google search, I found Denver Pet Cemetery and Crematory, one of three such operations in the metro area. I gave them a call and a friendly, compassionate voice answered the phone. That voice belonged to Everett Gidlund.

Denver Pet Cemetery and Crematory has been a staple of the local community for more than 80 years, after opening in 1939. A number of noteworthy pets—including Geronimo, a dog that served in the 507th Parachute Infantry during World War II—are buried on the grounds. The Commerce City Historical Society has also advocated for preservation of the pet cemetery in recent years.

While the cemetery’s rows of headstones and sign with blue lettering have long been an eye-catching and curious sight for those driving down East 72nd Avenue, the space has experienced turmoil in recent years. In 2015, the cemetery’s previous owner decided to shutter the business and sell the land. While waiting for a sale, the grounds were neglected, leading to complaints from neighbors about overgrown grass, messy leaves, and weeds. Additionally, pet owners wondered if they would have to spend hundreds of dollars to move buried remains from the location if it was bought by a developer.

Gidlund and his father, Paul, decided to buy the land in 2015 to prevent the cemetery from being bulldozed. At the time, much of the property had to be restored and renovated, and they weren’t sure if they would keep the business running. When the Gidlunds met with lawyers and accountants to discuss the logistics of the property, they were told that their best option was to get rid of the cemetery—keeping it running made little to no sense financially.

After about a year of the cemetery laying dormant, however, Everett asked his father if he could take over the land and restart operations. Everett was in his 40s at the time, and he had no prior experience in pet afterlife care. But he was determined to get the business up and running again to at least help pay off some of the property taxes.

Pet cemeteries and crematories aren’t exactly lucrative businesses. Animal afterlife care facilities, especially those with burial grounds that require expensive upkeep, have been disappearing across the country. But Everett and Paul were stubborn and decided to spend $10,000 renovating the property. After fixing up the crematory and recertifying the gas lines, the cemetery was officially reopened in 2016.

With a little help from cremation experts and some old friends, the younger Gidlund was able to learn all of the ins and outs of afterlife care. Six years later, it is a profitable business. While Everett is still involved with the Denver Pet Cemetery, he turned day-to-day operations over to his business partner Grant Stewart. The crematorium serves about two animals per day. You can still find headstones on the property of dogs and cats that passed away before the end of World War II. “I love meeting people from all walks of life,” Everett says. “We’ve had service animals, police dogs, and childhood pets come through our doors. Some people would think this is a depressing job, but I find it fascinating.”

Photo by Barbara Urzua

While I thought bringing my pokey friend to the younger Gidlund and Stewart was uncommon, hedgehogs are far from the most unusual pet the duo has seen. From critters as small as goldfish and tarantulas, to animals as large as goats and hogs, they serve nearly all pet owners. “Every time we think we’ve seen it all, we see something new,” Everett says. “It’s never a dull day.”

Additionally, the pair added a tool to the business’ website to check the status of their customer’s beloved pets. When owners entrust them with Fido, they can wait comfortably at home and watch the online status change from “Preparing” to “In Crematory” to “Ready for Pickup.”

After Oliver’s death, seeing the change from “Preparing” to “In Crematory” was when reality set in. My beloved friend won’t skitter around my linoleum floors again. After some tears and a couple of glasses of wine (or maybe a whole bottle), my mother picked him up and brought him back to me. I found his ashes inside the tin urn I had purchased, along with some fur and quills that had been carefully preserved before cremation in a bag. That night, I reminisced on Oliver’s short life and hoped that somewhere out there, there’s a hedgehog heaven where he spends his days munching on the tastiest grass and floating around on his own personal cloud.

I also appreciated how much easier Everett and Stewart had made that day by treating my small friend with care and respect. “It’s an unusual job, but it’s super rewarding,” Everett says. “We want to help people in their toughest times. We all love our animals, and we just want to take care of them as best as we can.”

(Read more: 8 Things You Might Not Know About Pet Ownership in Colorado)