Dog Person: Amy Finkel, pet memorialization connoisseur

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A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for The New York Times about Amy Finkel, a Brooklyn woman with a dream: To make a film about the weird ways in which people memorialize their pets. That film, Furever, is now a reality, and it’s a triumph and is making the film festival rounds — last weekend, it won the Audience Award at the Brooklyn Film Festival. I asked Amy to tell me a little bit about how this project came to be. 

At what point did you decide that you wanted to make a movie about dead pets? 

We had many types of animals growing up and I became very attached to them over the years. My parents were huge advocates of animal rescue, so we ended up with all sorts: dogs, rats, lizards, parakeets, gerbils (the list goes on). And no matter what the species, I found that I became unbelievably attached to each of them. As a result, I had a very tough time letting go when they died.

We’re so removed from death in our culture. We don’t talk about it; certainly not in public discourse. Once we got antibiotics in the 1940s, we became less accustomed to it. People used to die more frequently, and they died much younger, but today pet death is a more prevalent part of many people’s lives than human death. And it’s interesting to see how people deal with it.

A bronze mummiform for a cat named Shura. (Gregg Domenico)

For me, growing up, I had a lot of unanswered questions about the deaths of my pet friends. With non-spiritual parents, we never had discussions about soul or heaven or afterlife or anything like that. I’m not so sure that would have helped, as I’m not spiritual now, but it was certainly a tough blow to be told that my beloved animal ceased to exist any longer. That he or she had vanished, leaving behind nothing but a lifeless shell. It was extremely confusing. I knew there was something about the close physical relationship one has with a pet that makes the letting go even more difficult, which is why I put a whole segment in the film about the biology of the human-animal bond. It’s more than just a psychological attachment.

So, a few years ago, when I read a newspaper article about outrageous pet expenditures, and specifically about people freeze-drying their pets after death, I was intrigued. What comfort would a somewhat lifelike version of one’s pet offer? Did the pet owners believe they were cheating death? Where did they think the soul had gone, if they believed in that (which I suspected they did)? What was left in the preserved body of their late companion that offered such comfort? While their choices were unconventional, I empathized with their level of attachment to, and inability to let go of, their pets.

Furever started with a short segment on freeze-drying and it evolved into a feature-length exploration of many aspects of the pet death care industry, beyond pet preservation and cremains preservation. My goal was to capture the myriad memorialization options that exist, and to better understand the sociological evolution of pets in the U.S. today (especially as they relate to human death rituals, grief, religion, and our death-avoidant culture).

Do you think that your film reflects a sea-change in how people are viewing the human/pet relationship?

Yes, I’d say so. We spend nearly $53 billion on pets per year and they’ve migrated from residing outside the house to inside our beds. I wanted to look at how this evolution is affecting the veterinary and death care professions. Are pets gaining legal rights? Is there any regulation of the pet death care industry? Are our bonds with our pets strictly psychological, or physiological too? And, of course, who decides what kind of grief is acceptable or appropriate?

Koda meets Rudy, who is deceased. (Amy Finkel)

Also, how unconventional are these new-found rituals, really? Is there a cultural divide? It was interesting to me that a lot of these people were actually better able to deal with death than most. I became not only intrigued, but also impressed by the way that they were dealing with it. Very few believed that they were cheating death. One of the subjects, Mac, talks about how he’s had to explain to people that their pet is dead. That’s not the majority; that’s the exception. The majority of these people understood it in a way that I’m not sure I ever will, and whatever their memorialization method, found it offered a great deal of comfort.

Would you say this is a film more about pets or about loss in general? I can imagine that people who haven’t had a deep connection to a pet might come into a screening ready for ninety-minutes of eye rolling.

Well, I made the film with a very specific target audience in mind: pet people. I felt that I had to focus it in that way or else it wouldn’t carry the gravity that I wanted it to. I certainly wasn’t trying to preach to the converted (it’s not that type of film), but I figured that only pet lovers would likely enjoy the footage of live animals, which seemed crucial to include alongside the many dead ones. But to my surprise, numerous non-pet people are embracing it. I hadn’t anticipated that. I think they’re particularly drawn to the academic narrative that runs through it, and as a result of that content and the themes therein, they leave (or so I’ve heard), feeling more sensitive to their pet lover friends. Just the other day someone told me that her friend had to put his dog down, and that she’d initially mocked the fact that the pet had become a surrogate child to him, but that she had a new understanding and sensitivity to what he was going through, having watched the film, and that her instinct to mock had dissipated. I was, of course, thrilled. That’s the whole point.

That said, some of the scenes in the film are particularly polarizing. I’m shocked at screenings to see a large group of people in the audience crying, while others are laughing. It happens in every screening. But I can never gauge if it is, at times, uncomfortable laughter, because it is making people think about mortality in a way with which they’re totally rattled. I’m one of those people that unintentionally laughs at funerals and Bar Mitzvahs, so I do understand that reaction too. The film is asking people to confront a number of concepts that one is likely not thinking about regularly, so I’m of the belief that any reaction is fine.

Your film covers cloning, taxidermy, and mummification among other rather “out there” things. Was there one kind of pet memorialization that particularly appealed to you?

A soon-to-be-freeze-dried Schnauzer is secured to a wooden board (Amy Finkel)

Fortunately it’s not something I have to personally consider right now as I actually don’t have any pets — I live in a rent-controlled apartment that doesn’t allow them (although I did recently foster a dog, a Hurricane Sandy victim, Mortimer, who finally just found his forever home)! My family has only ever buried or cremated our pets, and I suspect that will still be the case even after they know about every memorialization method out there. I think my favorite, of all of them, however, is the process in which you record your pet’s voice and then press his or her ashes into a vinyl record, to keep in my record collection ‘furever.’

People do think I have a leaning towards taxidermy because I have a little family of freeze-dried and taxidermied animals in my apartment: Chompers, my groundhog, Fleischesser, my armadillo, and angel, my wild boar. My first subject, Mac, the pet taxidermist, gave them to me as thank you gifts for making his website for him. I feel a bit uneasy knowing that they, likely, did not die of natural causes, nor, unlike the boar, did anyone eat their meat, so it makes me feel better to treat them in death with the dignity and respect they never received in life. They get frequent positive affirmations and simulated food offerings. You know, for that extra dose of anthropomorphic affection (with a chaser of projection). Chompers and Angel spend time with me in my living room, and Fleischesser lives in my office, positioned so that he may stare in perpetuity at a gorgeous old mannequin whose arms frequently fall off, as an homage to his species’ leprotic leanings. I think I’m giving him a good afterlife.

 

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