“Maybe to someone else, he’s just a cat,” suggests Jon B. Gerster, a gentle-eyed pet lover from Seattle. “But I can look into those eyes and know what he’s thinking. We’re attached from the souls.” Gerster is referring to Boomer, a deceased cat who is still very much a part of his life. So much, in fact, that the animal’s last bowl of food, “last poops,” and a smidgeon of fur have been preserved in baggies, alongside a lovingly-arranged shrine of photos, engravings, and other memorabilia.
“Furever,” the always-thoughtful, sometimes-absurd, and completely amazing documentary by Amy Finkel, reveals the astonishing steps taken by humans to mourn and remember these beloved house pets. Step into Finkel’s visual kennel and become enlightened to our society’s $52 billion dollar love affair with domesticated animals – one which continues well into the afterlife. According to “Furever,” 62% of Americans own pets. Why? “People often disappoint us and break our trust,” explains one of Finkel’s interviewees. “Animals almost never do that.”
When it comes time to grieve these furry soul-mates, contemporary methods of memorializing are extreme. Cremated pet ashes might become glass-blown “memory beads,” diamond rings, fertilizer, vinyl records, fireworks displays, tattoos, and even gunpowder. Meanwhile, can I interest you in a nose-print pendant, pet hair pottery, commissioned art-sculptures built from articulated skeletons, or an underwater memorial made from pet ash and eco-friendly concrete? And I haven’t even mentioned the film’s forays into freeze-drying, mummification, and cloning of these furry friends.
Finkel makes wise choices on a number of levels. Most importantly, she passes no judgment on her distraught mourners and the lengths they will go to maintain connections with lost pets. Nor does she villainize the lucrative “death care industry,” where profit-seeking entrepreneurs market pet caskets, garish memorial services, and elaborate urns (says one salesman, “This is how I ‘urn’ a living”). One featured sociology professor persuasively proclaims, “People are particularly adept at using people’s grief to sell them.” On the other side of the coin, an industry talking-head insists that the funeral industry is simply satisfying demand. The public, he says, “came to us.”
The most sensible souls from “Furever” are arguably two pet taxidermists who feel both empathy and dumfounded disbelief towards their clients. One recalls a customer threatening to sue him because the resulting stuffed pet did not have the “life in its eyes that it did when it was alive.” By digging beyond this complex man’s tats, ponytail, and mounted trophies and into his thoughtful humanity, Finkel soundly squashes another stereotype – that taxidermists are bloodthirsty, backwoods rednecks. The label might be better applied to another macho dog-owner who, according to a featured veterinarian, insisted that his recently-castrated mutt be fitted with a pair of fake testicles.
I’ve never seen a film like “Furever.” Before attending the screening, I feared that the movie might be a cynical critique of pet-owner fanaticism gone awry, or a freak-show pointing its finger at preposterous people unable to let go. It’s anything but. Finkel embraces her characters, and “Furever” made me ponder both the fragility of the human condition, and the awesome balm that pets provide to all of us.