Kraisee preferred noodles for dinner. His cropped white hair and elegant gait made him the envy of many in his Bangkok neighbourhood, Chatuchak. On daily strolls to the park, hunched old grandmas and hyperactive groups of children alike would excitedly come to catch a glimpse of him. Known for his physicality and gravitas, his name was fitting: it translates from Thai to mean “brave as a lion”. Kraisee was everyone’s best friend.
But Kraisee was loved by nobody more than his family. Which is why, when on one fateful day he was struck down by kidney failure, Prija and Sirikit were caught off-guard and devastated. Their worlds had been turned top-to-tail.
"One businessman was so enamoured with his golden retriever that he paid £10,000 for an event with 60 monks, 80 guests, a motorcade funeral procession, and an extravagant custom-built gold-plated coffin"
As devout Buddhists, for whom it is customary to send off the deceased during a ceremony led by a monk clad in saffron robes, there was only one way that they would be saying goodbye to Kraisee. It’s a time-old practice that has been passed down over many generations. The difference, however, is that Kraisee was not a human but a 13-year-old dog, and Prija and Sirikit, a mother and daughter, weren’t his blood relatives, but his owners.
“He brought so much happiness to us. I can’t imagine what life is going to be like without him,” says Sirikit, while gently weeping beside the crematorium at Wat Noi Nok, a temple on the northern outskirts of Bangkok. “We’re Buddhists, and so this ceremony is what he deserves. It’s the normal thing for us to do.”
Draped in a blanket of bright marigold flowers and sprinkled in holy water, Kraisee rests lifeless and open-mouthed as the bald monk says the prayers and incantations. “If I’ve wronged you, please forgive me. If you’ve wronged me, I forgive you,” he intones.
The rather kitsch flower displays, combined with a meagre audience of two add to the surreality of the affair, which balances on a knife edge between genuine sadness and screamworthy hilarity. After a while, the monk consoles the bereaved, and Kraisee is taken through to a back room to be cremated, beginning his slow crawl to the next life.
Hundreds of pet funerals are now being carried out each month in Bangkok. Dogs and cats are the most common kind of animal, but lizards, pigs, iguanas, horses, monkeys, and even fish have been given the honour. Several temples now offer daily services for pets, with the added option of a boat trip for owners to sprinkle their pet’s ashes in the Chao Phraya river, symbolically returning the earthly remains to nature.
According to Buddhist belief, traditional funerals are a way of earning good karma for a deceased loved one, in the same way as giving alms to a monk – improving their chances of being reincarnated as something better as part of the samsara cycle of life and death. The hope is that pets will have a chance at coming back as humans. But once enough merit is earned, it can even lead to nirvana, the transcendent final state of Buddhism that is free from suffering and completely contented.
All of this transcendence does, of course, come at a cost. Prices for a standard pet funeral start at around £50, but some can stretch into the high thousands. One Thai businessman was so enamoured with his golden retriever that he reportedly paid £10,000 to cover the cost of an event featuring 60 monks, 80 guests, a motorcade funeral procession, and an extravagant custom-built gold-plated coffin. (Which might have made him the craziest pet-owner ever, until Whoopi Goldberg decided to arrange a "wedding" for her "grand-dog"…)
Theerawat Sae-Han, the founder of Pet Funeral Thailand, says his company cremates as many 400 animals each month – the equivalent of five to 15 every day. He set up the venture a decade ago and business is now roaring, so to speak.
“Bangkok is an extremely religious city,” he says. “And those beliefs extend to all parts of life. Most of our customers realise that their pets can’t gain enough merit on their own in this life, so it is up to them to do for them. Funerals are an obvious choice.”
But although some funerals are flamboyant, social media-saturated affairs – and perhaps an opportunity to display extreme wealth – others show humbling kindness from poor owners. Sae-Han says that recently a group of market traders scraped together the cost of a funeral for a stray puppy that would frequent their stalls, sniffing for scraps. They even brought food for it to eat in the afterlife. It was one of an estimated 100,000 street dogs in the city.
At Wat Krathum Suea Pla, to the east of the city, lies another pet funeral centre. The large plastic head of a floppy-eared St. Bernard marks off the entrance. A family of six mourns the loss of their sausage dog Suda. He was hit by a car. In a city like Bangkok, with its wild traffic and densely packed population, it’s all too common.
“Although we are sad, we know that she had a good life,” says the father of the family.
Soon after, the next ceremony brings through a chubby pug called Lucky. His owners dressed him up in an orange tiger suit in a box alongside four pairs of baby-sized Converse shoes. There was no shortage of selfies to commemorate his passing. It’s proof that these aren’t always stiff-lipped, serious occasions.
However, Phrakru Soponpihankij, a monk at the temple, believes that pet funerals are both a sign - and a symptom - of the fact that Bangkok residents becoming closer to religion in an age of fast-paced capitalism and globalisation.
“I think they help people realise what’s missing in their lives, and the important role that religion has to play in them,” he adds.
Whatever the reasoning behind them, these pet funerals are fascinating – if sometimes unintentionally amusing – events, that provide pause for thought and give a unique insight into modern Thai life.
Peter Yeung is a roving freelance journalist. Keep up with him on Twitter.