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What’s Next in Funerals?

FuneralsFrom Pokémon to the Marie Kondo decluttering craze, Japanese culture quickly crosses the Pacific. Costly funerals for furry friends could be next.

In Japan, mourners attend services for dogs, cats, even hamsters or birds, sitting solemnly during ceremonies officiated by Buddhist priests. Cremated remains are buried in vast pet cemeteries or stored in mausoleums that look like huge stacks of school cubbyholes, filled with flowers or small offerings of food for the afterlife. Granite markers abound, along with signs with words such as “amour,” “never forget,” and “love hurts” in various languages.

“This is big money. Somebody’s spending thousands,” says Pomona College Sociology Professor Jill Grigsby, who has conducted research on family life and animals in Japan while teaching in the Associated Kyoto Program, a joint effort of Pomona and a group of other colleges.

In the past, Japanese pets might have been buried in a yard, Grigsby says. “Now, many fewer people live in single-family homes.” Another factor might be the Japanese reverence for ceremonies.

Demographics may play a role as well. “Part of my explanation is that when you have very low fertility—and right now in the United States we’re experiencing extremely low fertility, and Japan has one of the lowest fertility rates of any country; so does Korea. People still want to create families; so they think of other ways of putting families together, which means friends, but also pets.”

Pet cemeteries exist in the U.S., but not so much formal funerals. Yet the family as it sees itself is sometimes depicted in stick figures on the back of an SUV: Mom, Dad, two kids and sometimes a dog and cat. “Animals really are members of the family,” Grigsby says.

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