Every pet owner likely watches Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven with a little cringe of familiarity. Buried in all of us is some of the same sincere absurdity that drives many of his interviewees to partake in the services of his subject: namely, pet cemeteries.
Morris’ 1978 debut is a documentary of many subtle layers. Ostensibly about two different pet cemeteries--one run by a well-meaning man with no business sense, the other by a true believer who has made a real go of it--Gates of Heaven could at first blush seem to be having a laugh at the expense of its subjects, but the more Morris’ subtle presentation settles over you, the more you realize that Gates of Heaven is an affectionate document of people whose deeply held feelings border on the ridiculous, but whom are all the more lovable for it.
Why else pair the earnest Mac McClure with the owner of a nearby rendering plant that competes with the concerned man over the dead? McClure’s overwrought compassion is given context by terrible things that his rival so callously undertakes on the regular. Likewise, McClure’s unvarnished emotion is balanced against the business sense of Cal Roberts’, whose family-run Bubbling Well Pet Memorial transplants McClure’s customers when he loses his land. Roberts sees his business as more of a religious calling, which itself is juxtaposed against how his two sons approach the vocation. One is an aimless hippie who does the work but with little ambition, the other a go-getter, primed for the oncoming 1980s, looking to expand profit in a way that forgets the true nature of the enterprise.
Woven through these tales are the testimonies of real pet owners who have availed Bubbling Well of their services. Herein lies Gates of Heaven’s true heart. For as excessive or outlandish some may find the pet cemetery business, it means something to those who bring their fuzzy loved ones there to rest. As we listen to their stories of connection and loss, we also view the memorials, images of the absent companion coupled with some adoring sentiment--alternately heartwarming for how long the life shared and heartbreaking for how short. One poor Christmas critter didn’t even make it to the following summer.
Sure, Morris is a natural satirist, and his intent with Gates of Heaven is not to simply memorialize or celebrate. Laced into this narrative is a critique of how commerce can taint spirituality, and how necessity can be overtaken by luxury. Maybe the rendering plant is more sensible by putting the animal remains to good use, and maybe a permanent resting place for doggies and kitties is impractical and even extravagant. Neither is really for the documentarian to say, the questions are simply there. But they also wouldn’t matter if Errol Morris didn’t have a genuine affection for everyone he cuts into the film, nor would Gates of Heaven have endured these thirty years as a work of astonishing humanism. Be honest, when watching it, did you look at your own furry pal sitting nearby and consider what his or her own monument might look like when the time comes?