While all living things are bound to die, the average lifespan of pets is shorter than that of humans. Most pet owners have to bear the burden of bidding farewell to their animal companions. And in South Korea until recently, saying goodbye to pets meant thrusting them into a trash bin with garbage, or letting the vet discard the corpse with medical waste. Burying them is illegal, unless it’s in an authorized graveyard.
But some pet lovers are now choosing to pay hefty amounts of money to send off the beloved creatures in a way they would their own human family members. The industry that offers cremation and funeral services for animals is on the rise. The target market: owners of the close to 1 million registered pets, and more who might not have their animal companions in the system.
The funeral service for pets is relatively new in South Korea, but it is part of the booming pet economy, including organic snacks and aroma therapy for pets. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs industry projected the pet industry to grow close to 6 trillion won (over 5 billion U.S. dollars) by 2020.
In 2008, the Animal and Plant Quarantine Agency allowed animal funeral and cremation service providers to operate after registering. The 2013 amendment to the Animal Protection Act defined funeral parlors, crematorium and charnel houses for animals as facilities that need to meet the government standards to register as businesses. Currently, there are 23 registered companies nationwide that run funerals and cremation for pets.
Po-ong (which means ‘hug’ in Korean) is a 24/7 app-based funeral provider that upon request, connects clients with certified pet funeral operators, who can take the deceased pet to a registered facility. Once the cremation is over, an ash-filled urn is returned to the human companion. With extra fees, ashes can be turned into memorial stones — glossy pebbles one can literally hold onto.
Launched this March, Po-ong is new to the market. But with competitive pricing starting from 150,000 won (around 135 dollars) and capped at 400,000 won (around 360 dollars) — other service providers can charge up to 850,000 won depending on the weight of the pet — Po-ong is getting many requests and much support from pet owners.
“I thought funerals [for pets] were an extravagance, but the pricing seems reasonable enough for me to use [the service],” wrote one user named Yeom Soo-kwang on the app’s review page.
And for those who want to go a step further, charnel facilities exist as an option. Pet Forest is a minimalist, black-and-white structure near a private cemetery (for humans) in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, not far from Seoul. This all-in-one facility offers not only funerals and cremation, but also spaces to keep the urns where the family can return to commune with their animal companions.
As the demand for animal crematoriums rises, more are looking into running such businesses. But some local communities have expressed opposition to having such ‘unpleasant facilities’ in their areas. To ease such conflicts, some lawmakers are taking action. Last year, Sim Sang-jung, a former Justice Party leader and ex-presidential candidate, proposed a set of regulations concerning where animal cremation facilities can or cannot be built.
The government is also working to keep up with the trend and tightening regulations. Earlier this month, a set of specific terms, including security cameras and sterilizing facilities, were added as the criteria for the animal crematorium guideline on enforcement of the Animal Protection Act.
“Previously, pets were considered animals that humans raise. Today, the perception has changed in such a way that pets are seen as family members. The pet industry is accordingly changing to provide products and services for these pets as if they are humans, not animals. We also are approaching the market with this mindset,” Po-ong founder Lee Dae-eun told Korea Exposé.
Cover image: Animals are becoming beloved members of South Korean families. (Winsker/Pixabay)