By: Hitoshi Ono & Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer
JAPAN - With an increasing number of distraught pet lovers seeking to mark the passing of their cherished animal friends with a funeral service, the range of relevant services on offer has grown considerably.
Among the options available to bereaved pet owners are the dispatching of staff to their homes to cremate the bodies of the deceased pets, and the sending of Buddhist priests to read out sutras for the departed creatures.
Part of the reason for this trend seems to be the increasing identification of pets as family members who deserve a heartfelt send-off when they die.
Yoneko Tanaka, 58, a housewife in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture, lost her beloved 13-year-old golden retriever last spring.
On the evening of the day the dog died, she held a farewell ceremony for her pet with five others, including her husband, daughter and son-in-law.
She placed a photo of the dog, flowers, fruit and candles on a table she used as an altar. She put a futon over the body of the dog, which had been placed to the side of the table-cum-altar. The six held hands and prayed in turn, offering words of gratitude to the departed dog and stroking its body.
Tanaka called on a mobile pet crematory to come to her home. "I wanted to have our dog cremated at a familiar place [to the pet]," she said.
Five of Tanaka's family attended the cremation. They placed incense sticks in front of the incinerator, and watched the dog's body being cremated. After the cremation, they picked up the bones and placed them in an urn. The cost of the cremation was about 40,000 yen, including the urn.
"Because I regarded our pet as one of the family, I had an individual cremation conducted like we would do for a human," Tanaka said.
According to the Tokyo-based Japan Pet Food Association, the number of pet dogs and cats in fiscal 1994, when the association began the survey, was 15.22 million, but this figure is now estimated to have reached 23.99 million in the last fiscal year, indicating that an increasing number of households are keeping pets.
Aiming to meeting the emotional needs of owners who have lost pets they dearly loved, an increasing number of businesses are providing funeral services for pets.
Masamitsu Fujimoto, head of the Pet Visiting Cremation Car Association of Japan, said: "The number of firms operating these kinds of services was around 10 in the Kanto region about five years ago, but today the number has surged to about 100."
The service options available have also diversified markedly.
Pet cremation services are usually divided into two categories--one for cremating multiple pet bodies at the same time, and the other an individual service to cremate one body. The latter category is further divided into two types--one in which the whole process is left to the service operator, and the other in which the pet owners themselves pick up the pet bones from the ashes.
Until recently, joint cremation services were popular because of their lower prices, but the percentage of individual cremations has now risen to about the same level as the number of joint cremations.
Another service on offer is having a Buddhist priest read a sutra aloud just before a pet's body is cremated.
Japan Pet Ceremony, a Tokyo-based company providing pet funeral services, has a business arrangement with some Buddhist temples, which provide priests to read sutras out in front of the bodies of dead pets. After the pet owner watches the ceremony, the body is cremated. The price differs depending on the temple involved, but the average cost is about 40,000 yen for a pet weighing from two to five kilograms.
Various repositories for pets, ranging from charnel houses resembling lockers and pagodas jointly dedicated to the souls of pets to individual graves. Pet owners either pay a lump-sum fee for use of the resting place for the bones of their pets, or they pay an annual maintenance fee.
Fees start from about 10,000 yen for a joint facility. An exclusive grave or tomb in a pet cemetery can cost hundreds of thousands of yen.
Some service operators, in cooperation with temples, provide memorial services for pets, such as a Buddhist ritual marking the first anniversary of their death.
In the rituals, pet owners pay an attendance fee and temple priests prepare a wooden tablet dedicated to the souls of the dead pets.
Kentaro Yoda, who is an expert in the history of pet graves has written a book examining the reason why people seek to have graves for animals.
"In many cases, people hold funerals and bury pets in graves, because they feel a sense of gratitude toward their pets and want to confirm their mental ties with their dead pets," Yoda said. "Since ancient times, the Japanese have held values that strongly bind them to the natural world and the creatures in it. From this point on, the trend of having a heartfelt service for pets is likely to spread."