I'm honestly not trying to spread my grief around, and I wouldn't devote a post to this if it weren't also a cultural experience. Please accept my apologies if this is too detailed.
Let me start with this: my husband and I are not religious. Having gotten a recommendation for a place that does pet cremations and also offers a Buddhist ceremony, we decided it was a unique opportunity. And really, if you're going to pick a religion to trust with matters of death, Buddhism is the way to go. Their whole deal is largely about death and the soul moving from one stage of existence to another.
We took this whole thing perhaps a little more seriously than most people in our situation, we wore black suits to the ceremony and picked up a small bouquet of flowers on the way. A little funny, a little tragic. It's how we roll.
The facility was very small; on one side of the lot was a small trailer with a waiting area and a small altar. (Also my first experience with a squat port-a-potty instead of a Western style.) In the middle of the lot was a large altar with incense burning, covered in fresh flowers and offerings others had made for their deceased pets - toys, dishes of food, bottles of water. Very bittersweet. On the other side of the lot was the cremation area.
We handed her over to the (very, very respectful and very polite) people that were working, and they helped guide us through the process in spite of our painfully small overlap in vocabulary.
Most couples that go there are either both Japanese or one spouse is Japanese. We had to be the only Western couple in a long time that opted to stay and get the full experience, but I'm glad we did.
They placed her in a box in front of the small altar in the trailer for a moment, I think as a mini wake, and we spent a tearful moment saying goodbye and preparing for whatever was to come next.
When she was brought to the preparation area, we were provided with a basket of fresh flowers (chrysanthemums, daisies, carnations, and the flowers we had brought with us in white, yellow, and purple) with which to surround her. Husband tucked a single red bud under a front paw. My last visual memory of her is ringed in beautiful fresh flowers, and I didn't expect that to have such a positive impact on me, but it has.
Then Husband made a comment about the giant metal box being Aria Spaceguns' escape pod and we both suddenly needed some tissues.
One worker started it up, the other struck a bell, and they gestured for us to light some incense. Then we were ushered out to the main altar to light more incense (and leave a symbolic dish of food), say a short prayer, and return to the trailer to wait an hour for the process to be finished.
It is typical, after cremation, that the family members use chopsticks to place the bones of the deceased into the urn. I thought that part would be painful, but it wasn't. It wasn't my friend anymore, just some crispy bones that used to belong to her. I know how awful that sounds, but I don't know how else to describe it.
We were gently instructed with a lot of hand gestures and pointing to start from the feet and tail and leave the head and shoulder bones for last (so she would be upright in the urn, which I thought was a considerate detail), and we were supposed to comment on her good bone structure, whatever that means, (thank you Internet research), but we completely forgot until that moment had passed.
The cremation attendant very carefully placed the last few bones in a ceramic urn for us and carried it to the trailer where the hostess/cashier/supervisor/whoever-she-was that seemed to be in charge showed us samples of fabric for urn covers. I chose one and a sticker design for her name, and she was very sure to place the urn so the remains were facing front, toward the name tape. (Another considerate detail.) The remains went back on the small altar for more incense lighting and a final moment of silence, bringing the ceremony to a close. She then insisted on carrying the remains for us to the car, only relinquishing them once I was seated and could take the urn with both hands.
We ran a couple errands on our way home, making sure the remains were safe in the back seat.
Again, it's how we roll.
I understand there is also a custom to give the deceased a posthumous name to prevent the spirit from returning every time the name is spoken, but I think I don't like the idea of never saying her name again. It may be silly to pick and choose which parts of the customs we follow and which we don't, but we're doing almost everything right, I think. And the guidelines are obviously less strict for pets than people, since nobody else we saw was dressed up at all, not to mention that you can opt out of the ceremony and just pick up the urn at a later date.
This experience reminds me why people have traditions for major life events: ceremony is helpful. In this case, it has helped give me some peace of mind. We're still sad and we miss her, but I am confident that we've done everything we could have for both her body and soul.