Each of us has a unique bond with the animals who share our lives, and that includes how we memorialize them after their death. In a society where we each have different beliefs and rituals around how we memorialize our human loved ones, the idea of memorializing a beloved pet in the same ways can seem strange to many people, but perfectly natural to others. In recent years, as pets become more accepted as sentient beings and members of our families rather than possessions, those who grieve their pets have taken more and greater steps to memorialize and even preserve their pets after death.
I recently had the opportunity to screen Furever, a feature-length film that explores in a non-judgmental documentary format what a dozen or more people have done to preserve as much of their pet in memorial as they feel is appropriate for them, be it a simple grave marker, jewelry incorporating or made from their pet’s cremains or taxidermy to preserve their body in a favorite pose. Directed by Amy Finkel, funded by a Kickstarter campaign that found support among donors and sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, the film permits pet owners to tell their own stories and explain their decisions in their own words, and also gives time to those who provide the services and create the memorials to explain how it’s done and stories of those they serve.
Interspersed with the stories are remarks from sociologists, anthropologists, veterinarians, religious scholars and neuroscientists about our pets’ roles in our lives today and through history. Archeological evidence shows that in past eras we did grieve and memorialize the animals who shared our lives just as we did the humans—often with animal-specific rituals as Egyptians famously grieved their felines—and that today we are just as conflicted about how we memorialize our human loved ones as our pets.
As Finkel states in her director’s statement, our pets have gone “from outside the house to inside our beds”. One of the reasons we may choose to go farther with a memorial for a pet or choose one that has a physical nature is that we are so deeply bonded with our pets not only for the obvious emotional reasons but also for physiological reasons. We touch our pets all the time, possibly more than we touch the humans in our lives. Our pets sit on our laps and sleep on us, and we may even carry them around for years, far longer than any children in our lives. A cat’s purr has healing and calming effects. A neuroscientist explained in depth the effect that stroking or holding or otherwise physically interacting with a pet has on our own bodies. Having a charm or token or statue or preserved body can sometimes be the only thing that will ease the emotional and physical grief of losing an animal companion.
Furever “confronts contemporary trends, perspectives, and relevant cultural assumptions regarding attachment, religion, ritual, grief, and death, and studies the bonds that form between humans and animals, both psychological and physiological.” It’s been screened in dozens of film festivals and won over a dozen awards.
Deb Chebatoris of Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation discovered this documentary just before its release on Valentine’s Day this year and decided that as part of her outreach for pet lovers she would host screenings of the film. Deb is one of my commercial customers (as well as me being one of her customers) and I help her plan events, write and distribute her press releases and update her website and social media, and understood I needed to see this work in order to help her promote her event. We watched it together on her computer and discussed how we would present it to potential viewers.
The movie describes and shows some of the detail of preservation methods such as taxidermy and mummification and some may find this disturbing but it gives us a complete and honest understanding of what happens with our pet’s remains and those who handle them, and all persons who speak and present information in the movie are respectful of the animals they handle. That’s not to say everyone seems entirely reasonable—even some of the pet owners question their actions as they describe the grief rituals they follow even years after they’ve lost their pet. The work area of one of the taxidermists was disturbingly unclean and though his description of how working with pets was emotionally difficult for him was understandable he was still a little rough around the edges.
Not so Mike McCullough of Mac’s Taxidermy and Freeze-dry in Loudon, PA with his ponytail and his Harley whose shop inspired Finkel to begin her journey into the subject. While his typical customers are hunters who bring their prize kill to the shop he also works with a fair number of pet owners who are deep into grieving and he offers gentle compassion and understanding. His finished subjects are amazingly lifelike.
Furever is an absorbing 90 minutes of stories and information, interesting even if you’d never consider any of the preservation techniques described. It’s all about us as humans and our evolving relationship with our companion animals and even our feelings about death in general and our own mortality and how that shapes our decisions. Read more about it and watch the trailer on the website, www.fureverfilm.com.
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Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation will host a free screening of Furever at the Bridgeville Public Library at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 3, 2014. Seating is limited so please RSVP to Deb Chebatoris at 412-220-7800 by Thursday, April 1. Other screenings in the Pittsburgh area will follow.
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