Talking Postmortem Pet Preservation With Furever Director Amy Finkel

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on May 29, 2013 in Rat Answers | Subscribe

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A photo of cat Ruby sits beside what’s left of her body, a small portion of her ashes. (Amy Finkel)

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Finkel
Documentary filmmaker Amy Finkel’s always had difficulty dealing with the death of her pets. And when she learned about some of the extreme measures pet owners take to preserve their animals postmortem—taxidermy, freeze-drying and even cloning—she decided to document the dimensions of grief that drove them to these lengths in her newest film, Furever. We got a chance to speak with Finkel about the relationship between humans and animals, pet death and coming to terms with mortality; you can catch her film at upcoming screenings at the Northside Festival and the Brooklyn Film Festival for its New York premiere (details below).

So what inspired you to capture the extreme ways people deal with pet death in this documentary? I had a really tough time letting go of my pets when I was a kid. I felt a little pathological in some way, because I was reacting more than I should have been, you know. We had a number of pets: we had therapy dogs, rats, lizards, all kinds of stuff. In the film I touch on the fact that we’re just not very comfortable with human death, because we don’t experience it that much. Luckily, I didn’t experience much [human death] growing up, but I just was beyond devastated when my pets would pass away. We never did anything unconventional, we would bury the small animals in the backyard, and we would give the dogs’ bodies to the vet.

A few years ago, I read an article about outrageous pet expenditures, and there was a segment about freeze drying in there, and I thought, you know, I might be the right person to tell this story, because I don’t think [the people who do that] are crazy, necessarily. I thought they would probably be peculiar, but mostly I intrigued by what would offer them comfort by keeping the body of the pet, and whether they thought they were cheating death, whether they thought the pet’s soul was still inhabiting the body. When I was growing up, there were no discussions about souls—my parents were atheists and that was not a topic of discussion, which may have made it harder for me to let go of my pets. So I understood the level of attachment, and I understood their inability to let go. I didn’t want to sensationalize the topic, I wanted it to be educational.

People didn’t seem crazy. There were a select few who weren’t exactly crazy—definitely eccentric—but you understand how much they love the animal. One woman talked about how she used to pet her dog when it was curled up, and she needed to have that sensation back. We have that reaction to sensory things, like your grandmother’s cooking. And for some it’s holding a picture of their pet. There was no one in the film whose method of memorialization didn’t offer them a great deal of comfort, which I thought was kind of fascinating. And then it got kind of funny, at the end…it goes on this progression of not too extreme to the most extreme. Summum, the religious organization in Salt Lake City, they were wild. They turned out to be, I don’t want to say a sex cult, necessarily, they wouldn’t call themselves a cult, but they were definitely…they gave me a sex manual as I left as a gift, and some kind of oil-based sexual lubricant. They believed that Corky, a human mummy who’s in the back, had a sighting with advanced beings. I’m in no way saying that I think mummification is the way to go, or cloning. Cloning, ethically, I have a problem with.

You spoke with pet owners about losing their most beloved partner/relationship. What was the hardest part of talking to them? That stuff is for me the easiest part. Sometimes I would cry along with them, not because I knew it would get a reaction, just because it’s sad to talk to someone, particularly the ones who lost a pet years before and for whom it was still so close to the surface, whose grief was so close to the surface. My parents’ dog—she’s 13 now, and you know, of course I think about that stuff. I don’t want to think about it. At times it was just really sad to talk to them. But mostly, I mean, it just—that was the fun part for me. I know that sounds totally ridiculous, with them crying and talking—but it was always a fun experience, and my goal throughout is to make them feel comfortable.

Many of the owners were saying [the taxidermy animal] feels the same, it’s very comforting to have my dog back, whatever, and then you have the taxidermist saying that some people say, oh, they don’t have that life in their eyes anymore. Can you talk a little about that? I encountered very few people who truly believed they were cheating death, or that they had somehow conquered it in some way and that their pet was alive again. Most of the people…I thought they would be more peculiar than they were. They were otherwise totally conventional, even the ones who were giving chemo to their dog, and who were going to extreme measures financially to keep their pet alive. I did encounter people who kept the animal alive far too long and felt an extraordinary amount of guilt about it. And that may have been a huge amount of their grief. Not only the loss of ritual but also just grief—you know, a guilt over what they had done wrong. Knowing that they couldn’t let go, and it would become a problem.

I had one subject who I didn’t put in the film…it was the hardest shoot that I did the entire time. She didn’t believe in euthanasia, and her cat should have passed away probably two years ago, three years ago, and she was bringing the cat—this is the problem, she didn’t believe in killing her cat, but she was bringing the cat to have the fluid around his heart and lungs aspirated, every two days to the vet. And it was just heartbreaking, and this cat was trying to make his way across her floor, neuropathy had kicked in, and it was just—it was heartbreaking…It was more the people who had living pets that was tougher to deal with.

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Owner Gretta introduces Koda (living) to Rudy (deceased) for the first time. (Amy Finkel)

In terms of people keeping extreme mementos of their pets, I had an art teacher in high school who kept her cat’s tail in a reliquery. What are your thoughts on keeping a ritual item of that sort? I think it’s more common than not. It’s just not common in our culture. But you know, we didn’t get antibiotics until the 1940s. So we were far more comfortable with death before that. And of course, much, much before that too, going back to ancient Egypt. Traditions of ancestor worship, you can trace them back in most cultures quite far. Religious relics have been found everywhere, in the US too. For the Victorians, it was totally common to keep a lock of hair in a mourning brooch. These were not strange things. So is it really that strange to keep your animal’s body around? Well, not really. As Kimberly Haddon from Harvard says [in the film], it’s the loss of the last place the soul is. It makes sense that we would want to keep that around. But it’s just not that strange. It’s just strange in our culture, because we’re not used to it. We’re not used to death. It’s so taboo, it’s so sterilized, so stigmatized, it’s so clean. Death has become so clean. It was really interesting being at the human death fair conference, listening to their discussions, which is just something I would never r think about. Nowadays they do these dye tests on bodies to see if they have cancer or whatever they have. And [a doctor[ said that he embalmed a body, took it home from the hospital, took it back to the funeral home, and the body turned blue like a Smurf.

That’s an interesting point that you made about the penicillin. When in our cultural history do you think we stopped talking about death? l I think it was just a natural progression when people stopped dying as frequently. We don’t experience death, most of us, until we’re in our 50’s sometimes. Our parents are not dying. People died in their 20’s before antibiotics. I think in the 1930s, up through the 30s, you would wear a black armband as a symbol, saying, listen, we had a death in our family…you can come up and say, I’m so sorry to hear about your loss, who passed away? It was just more common. We just don’t have that these days. So I think pet death…it’s kind of interesting to see the progression of death becoming more and more taboo, and then pets become our family members more and more, and die early. It throws most people into a tailspin. They don’t know what to do. They’ve never experienced it.

I feel like in popular culture today, we’re dealing with a lot of life after death. Zombies are in, and vampires. There’s a lot of focus on keeping on living after you die. Do you think this is because we’re more afraid of death now and prolonging putting it off? Definitely. I would say fear is most of it. Fear of the unknown.There’s a reason I put the religious segment in [the film], because we, traditionally, and for a lot of the people that I was interviewing, it was mostly monotheistic faiths. But especially for devout Catholics who were raised to think pets don’t have souls, they had no idea what to think. They didn’t understand why they wanted to preserve the body, they didn’t understand where the soul was. According to their parents, their pet does not have a soul, but they know that their pet has a soul, they feel it. They feel very close to the pet. One of the most interesting things was just watching pet owners wrestle with this idea of what is an afterlife, what exists in that afterlife for their pet. And for their human counterparts. It’s so confusing for people. So I think it’s more fear than anything else.

The religion thing is interesting because it feels like we’re at a point in history now, in our culture, where we’re actually distancing ourselves from religion, religion is turning into something “freaky”…Do you feel like taking on your own ritual post-death is a way with coping with not having an understanding of death rooted in faith? I asked about three scholars…about atheism and agnosticism and how this evolution is related to this, but they wouldn’t touch it. So yes, if you’re asking me, I agree with you, I think there is something to be said for that. But nobody would go there. But also, we’re in New York, and most of the country is still totally religious. In other cultures, I think you do see this shift, but I think we’re somewhat..I think people do practice [religion] quite a lot in many states.

I didn’t get the feeling from the film that [preserving a pet after death] was a class issue. You did feature some people who who were able to spend money to keep a pet around, and you had bits about all the celebrities who taxidermy their pets, but a lot of the people you interviewed didn’t seem to be particularly wealthy. They weren’t. In fact, in some of the earlier interviews, I interviewed some people who were the antithesis of that. They would have done everything in their power…I remember one woman saying, “I don’t care. If it was $10,000 I’d figure out a way to do it. I’d put my house up…I’d do anything that I could do.” But, I think most of the people, whether they had to work really hard to get the money to do it or not, they had money. There was definitely a feeling that most of the people who do this have some kind of disposable income. Peter, the guy who cloned his dog—which is obviously the most extreme insomuch as it was $100,000—my editor and I had two totally different reads on him. Her story was about how Peter worked really hard to clone his pet, but it wasn’t about cloning at all, it was just about how hard he worked to get the money to clone the pet. I don’t mind if people think he’s wealthy. It’s okay to be. I want to hear about why he thinks cloning is okay, but he worked really hard to get the money to clone his pet. He came from the streets of Los Angeles.

Do you think that people’s relationships with pets have intensified over time? Yeah, that was why I put the segment in about how we anthropomorphize pets. I think there’s a little bit of a disconnect there. It’s one thing to dress a pet up, it’s a whole other to buy neuticles or to go to a pet psychic.

I grew up watching The Fox and the Hound and The Incredible Journey, where the animals are talking, and they have feelings just like me. As a kid, watching a cat in the river and trying to crawl out of it, I had to leave the theater, I was so upset. Yes, we are raised to think that they are humans. And I think that was part of the reason why I had so much trouble letting go as a kid. I remember I had a [pet] rat die when I was in high school. I was a pretty well-adjusted person, all things considered, but my rat died when I was 16, and I could not physically let go.I was holding on to this dead rat for probably two hours until my parents came home and pried it…and I sound like a crazy person thinking back to this, but I would come home from school every day and I would talk to her [when she was alive]. You’re projecting everything onto these animals. Yeah, you’re seeing it in cinema, you know, All Pets Go to Heaven and Watership Down, and all these talking dog movies, Lady and the Tramp, perfect example, for me it was Old Yeller…you project onto them. I would come home from school to do my homework and my rat was cage-trained, she was super smart, she would sit on my shoulder for five hours sometimes. You become very attached. I also knew that there was a huge physiological reason for the attachment, which is why I put the whole thing on Oxytocin in, I think it explains a lot and I always assumed that there was some sort of reason behind it.

Furever will be screening on June 1st at IndieScreen and on June 8th at Windmill Studios in Williamsburg as part of the Brooklyn Film Festival. It will also screen at Videology in Williamsburg on June 18th as part of the Northside Festival.

Article source: http://gothamist.com/2013/05/29/interview_with_amy_finkel.php

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