ZHEJIANG, East China — When Zhu Guojun’s dog died in 2012, it was buried at the top of a hill in the countryside because Zhu didn’t know there were any other options. But when he and his wife came to visit the next day, they found that the dog’s body had been dug up by wild animals. “I was so shocked and devastated,” Zhu tells Sixth Tone.
The incident inspired Zhu to found ForPets, a pet funeral services company in Hangzhou, and devote himself to the pet cremation and interment industry. With rich experience in the field of environmental protection, he and his research team developed pollution-free incinerators installed inside a van. “It looks like a regular Iveco [van] from the outside, but inside there’s a high-tech incinerator,” Zhu says.
The pet industry has grown tremendously in China in recent years. As disposable incomes rise and attitudes toward animals change, people — especially city-dwellers — increasingly lavish attention and money on their pets, spending on everything from pet hotels to pet spas. Estimates place the value of the industry in 2016 at 130 billion yuan ($18.8 billion), and experts predict that consumption will grow to more than 200 billion yuan by 2020.
With more and more people considering their pets to be valued family members, pet cremation and funeral services have become integral to ensuring that their dear departed are honored through to the end. Zhu believes that most animal owners want to give their pets respectful treatment after they die. “They just don’t know where to go,” he says.
It is estimated that there are more than half a million pets in Hangzhou alone, and around 150 die each day. Only two major companies in the city offer pet cremation services directly to the public, though the local government also carries out mass cremations of dead and diseased pets.
Staff prepare for the funeral of a pet dog in Shanghai, Aug. 29, 2015. Lai Ruining/VCG
Hong Yu, a police dog trainer, established Senge Canine Company in 2003 when pet cremation services were hard to find in China. “My initial purpose was to build a facility that could handle the bodies of my police dogs when they died,” says Hong.
At first, Hong only cremated one or two pets whose owners were within his personal network each year, while he remained focused on training police dogs. But before he knew it, the company started to see demand from animal hospitals and canine clubs, and its client base ballooned. That’s when Hong realized there was huge potential in the market. These days, Senge cremates close to 50 animals each month.
Fees for cremation range from 800 yuan to 1,700 yuan depending on the weight of the animal. If the customer requires a higher-end funeral — which includes grooming the pet, dressing it in a shroud or burial clothing, and playing dirges to the deceased prior to cremation — the price can be as high as 5,100 yuan.
A pet mortician prepares the body of 6-month-old dog Xiaoxiao for a funeral in Wuhan, Hubei province, March 27, 2017. Wang He/Getty Images/VCG
“We don’t encourage customers to have a high-profile funeral or grave for their pets,” says Hong. He explains that the company’s philosophy centers around providing an emotional outlet for grieving owners and an environmentally friendly way to dispose of animal remains.
For clients like 22-year-old Tang Meng, cremation seems like the most respectful option. It’s been six months since Tang’s beloved dog died, but she still cries when she remembers him. “I miss him every day,” Tang says.
Her German shepherd died while she was away, and her father immediately buried him in their backyard without telling her. Tang and her sister dug him out and drove him to Senge for cremation. “This was the best way to honor my dog,” Tang says.
Cremation is also safer than burial from a health perspective. Huang Jianchuan, a veterinarian with over a decade of experience working in Hangzhou, always suggests that owners have their deceased pets cremated rather than buried, as viruses can spread from animals that died from disease. “Even if they are buried deep in the ground, they can still pollute water sources and soil,” Huang says.
An employee at the Wangzai pet cemetery prepares deceased pet dog Xiaoxiao for cremation in Wuhan, Hubei province, March 27, 2017. Wang He/Getty Images/VCG
Pet burial sits in a regulatory gray area, as interment of human remains comes under civil affairs, while agricultural departments deal with animals. Funeral services for the human deceased have only become a professional industry relatively recently in China, so pet services still have a way to go. Hong says that many new companies offer luxurious pet funerals, graves, and cremation without appropriate licenses. “The market should be regulated as soon as possible,” he says.
Zhu’s company, ForPets, cremates about 100 animals each month, with customers hailing from Hangzhou and beyond. In addition to more common pets such as dogs and cats, the company’s services have been used for hamsters, turtles, and even a 100-kilogram pig.
For the basic 600-yuan service, staff drive to pick up the deceased pet and place its body on a bed covered by a white sheet for grooming and simple prayers before cremation. The mortician also drives the van, and a psychologist comes along to comfort the owners. The whole process takes just under an hour, and then the ashes are given to the owners in a ceramic urn.
A pet owner places the ashes of 19-year-old dog Jaili into a grave at the Wangzai pet cemetery in Wuhan, Hubei province, March 27, 2017. Wang He/Getty Images/VCG
ForPets has registered seven patents for its innovative mobile crematory, but though the van allows staff to park and cremate animals anywhere, Zhu says ignorance and superstition sometimes stops them from doing so. “Most people still don’t know about this industry, and they don’t want to see a dead animal being cremated near where they live, as it’s a taboo in Chinese culture,” he says.
Xu Li, one of the company’s psychologists, helps the bereaved express their emotions while the driver-turned-mortician prepares the corpse for cremation. As an animal lover who has lost her own dog, Xu feels she knows exactly what clients are going through. She often suggests that owners write eulogies for their pets, which are posted to the company’s website.
However, many pet owners harbor doubts about the industry. “They think we make money off of their grief,” says Xu. “They would rather bury their pets themselves and visit them whenever they want,” she adds.
In an effort to publicize its services, ForPets participates in the local government’s animal epidemic prevention campaign, which involves promoting vaccinations and cremations. The company goes to dozens of neighborhoods in Hangzhou to visit dog owners and let them know what services are available. “They are a little taken aback at first, but they soon begin to understand and to agree that cremation is a good thing,” says Sun Yiru, a social media manager at ForPets.
The company also owns a pet cemetery in Anji, 70 kilometers away from Hangzhou, but the service is pricey. Tombs cost between 8,800 yuan and 16,800 yuan, with an annual management fee of 200 yuan. So far, there are about 20 pets’ ashes resting there, in a carefully designed “pet paradise” complete with waterfalls, rock gardens, pavilions, and even mock castles.
Pet dog Xiong Xiong’s tomb in the ForPets cemetery in Anji, Zhejiang province, March 29, 2017. Courtesy of Sun Yiru/ForPets
Xu says that ForPets aims to move away from the spooky atmosphere associated with cemeteries. “Our pets bring us happiness and joy when they are alive, so they should rest in a place that is warm and lively after they pass away,” she says.
For now, though, pet mortuary services remain a fairly niche business. Even for the most indulgent and devoted animal lovers, funerals only happen once in a pet’s lifetime, compared to other services that are sought more frequently. The cost can be prohibitive, and the concept falls outside the mainstream in a developing country where many are still struggling to make ends meet.
Many people in rural areas still can’t afford to eat or clothe themselves, Xu says: “They don’t have the luxury of being concerned with animal rights.”
Editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: A woman holds a funeral for her dog Jaili, who died at the age of 19, at the Wangzai pet cemetery in Wuhan, Hubei province, March 27, 2017. Wang He/Getty Images/VCG)