|[ Editor's Pick ]||Posted 8th May 1997|
Tiny children - over-size shovels. A shallow garden grave for Tiddles. Tears at dusk, a moments silence, perhaps a shamefaced muttered prayer. Jam jars of dandelions. A matchstick cross. The first trauma of a secure childhood - the death of a family pet.
Japan: - garden less. The garbage tip? The window box? - Too big for the loo..
On a wooded mountainside, just outside Oita City on the eastern coast of Kyushu, surrounded by a garden and tubbed flowers is a small, square building. Inside, neatly tended, row upon row of tiny shrines on shelves lead the eye to an altar. A Buddhist animal funeral parlour - one of Japan's first. Tacky? Tasteless? Kitsch beyond belief? Hush cynic, no - it captures the same gentle, self deprecating solemnity of the little garden scenes so familiar to every western childhood. Hanai-san owns and runs the place - a rumbustious laughing middle-aged women with enlightened ideas about ice cream for supper and a half hidden smile as she tells you how she started. Hanai-san trained as a Buddhist priest, but decided asceticism and flagellation under waterfalls was a bore. So she and her husband started a small pet shop and animal hospital in Oita. Burying the dead was a logical extension.
The full service costs 30,000yen - rental on a shrine is 10,000yen a year. It is modeled on the human service without going overboard. The body is cremated on the first day if possible, to release the soul. Then the bones are collected and placed in one of the simple private altars. The ashes go to the garden. After a year, if the family don't want the upkeep of a private shrine, the bones are placed beneath the main altar. Simple prayers are offered daily.
For that year they reside in small, colourful rounded boxes. Photo's, favourite toys -in one case a man's last letter and will to his rabbit, squabble for space with canned food and Buddhist trinkets. But mostly owners are just ordinary people who regarded the pet as a member of the family and want the corpse disposed of with dignity.
Japan can be a very isolating country - within marriage and without. Pets may take on a disproportionate significance. Combine that with incipient sentimentality and an underlying belief in reincarnation and you have fertile ground for a profitable business.
But Oita is a country area, Hanai-sans prices haven't changed in 25 years, and she professes embarrassment at modern practitioners of the trade. In coarser Fukuoka several companies offer a service - (1,000,000yen top-whack) - from mobile funeral parlours. Trucks with inbuilt crematoria and shrine trundle around each neighbourhood, loud music swells as the "loved one" is gobbled up through velvet curtains - tears to order, credit cards accepted. The Buddhist temples used to frown at the flippancy of animal funerals. But the scramble for bums-on-seats can force a smile onto even the most pompous face...
Prayers for the souls of the dearly departed. A half smile from Hanai-san - will we go with her behind the building to get some rubber boots? - the snakes chase her, she claims. Then her Golf GTi back to her office/shop in Oita (doggie sanitary towels 4500yen each) as she rustles up lunch and onsen on a portable phone...
Delicious Roadkills - with the Gourmet Vet
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