Wednesday, July 18th, 2012
I was somewhat startled the other day to receive a letter from Mr. Russell of Providence, Rhode Island. Startled and chagrined, too. Mr. Russell’s letter said. “your mother and father are still here. Would you like to chat about them?” Mr. Russell has a way with words.
Mr. Russell and his brother run a funeral home out of a large Victorian house on Wayland Square. Last year they also opened up McBride’s, a pub just next door, and business is booming. I admit that, having read most of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series in which Stiva’s Funeral Home figures prominently in the social life of Trenton, I kind of get it. The day after my father died I drove up to the elegant funeral home in my dad’s big boat of an ancient Buick, and I thought of Stephanie Plum, HER big boat of a Buick, her grandma Mazur’s avid interest in open casket viewings and what type of cookies they’ve made this evening … and I actually laughed. Laughing helps a lot when grief has socked you in the gut. Mr. Russell asked me if I would like a small vase to put some of the ashes in for my mantel. I considered this and said yes, that sounded nice. Then he asked, perhaps we could put a little of your mother and a little of your father in there? This was getting hairy for me. “No, no, don’t do that,” I said without even thinking, “they didn’t always get along that well”. He went with the flow, “yeah, a lot of people say the same thing” and we burst out laughing.
It’s a problem that has plagued us from the beginning of time: people and animals can be somewhat useful when they’re ambulatory and breathing, but once they’re inert, what on earth to do with the remains? One wants to be respectful. Reverent. We have ceremonies and special boxes and oils and locations and markers but what, oh what, does one do with a large animal who has inconveniently died when it’s below freezing out and the ground is rock solid?
Occasionally I find chickens who have up and died without warning. About once a year it seems like some poor, ambitious soul decides that the horse’s trough is more his style than his puny chicken waterers. And he falls in and drowns. Yesterday I had a new young volunteer here and while cleaning out the chicken barn we found a rooster who had settled into a nesting box and expired earlier that day. His name was Sarah. Alas, we had tagged and named him before his roosterly qualities were evident. Sarah the rooster. He was a handsome fellow with a peculiar rosebud type of comb and, if I recall correctly, just a bit of a bad boy attitude. Being named Sarah will do that do a guy. I informed the shocked youth that I would place his body deep in the woods as offering to the wildlife. I used to bury our dead, and had my artist friend Rick carve stone markers for them; it was a big deal, partly because the ground here is very hard and full of shale. But everyone’s got to eat, and I am quite certain that Sarah has no more use for his body in its current form. While I don’t want to watch the noshing, I do believe it is practical, economical and, I dare say, community-minded.
Yet for all this practical bravado, I was shocked last week, too. A client who wanted her young sheep sheared told me that the ewe had just died suddenly, so I needn’t come anymore to shear. The ewe belonged to her child, and while I’d not yet met them, it seemed like she was a pet. They took her to the compost center. OK, I admit it, I’m still a city girl. While there may be something vaguely nature-ish about leaving a body out for the foxes and vultures, the thought of putting a beloved animal in a poop pile starts to send me over the edge. To take it up a notch, there is the whole pet food thing. My hair stood on end when I discovered that the hospital that had performed the necropsy on WC, my very first and beloved sheep, had thrown him onto the rendering wagon. For a real after-dinner treat, google it if you don’t know what that is. I wouldn’t want to spoil your (or your dog’s) appetite right now.
And today we had to euthanize Mabel the pig. She’d had what appeared to be a stroke about a month ago and was deteriorating. The decision was hard in coming and I found it difficult to sleep even after making it. But here’s the thing: when you have a dead body on your hands, you can’t spend too much time crying. Action must be taken. This is NOT a problem that can be ignored. Now, those of you who have pets will probably bury them at a pet cemetery or surreptitiously in the back yard, or use a cremation service to the tune of about $250. I did meet a woman once who kept all her cats in the freezer, but I expect she was the exception. I considered all of the options for Mabel, including the expensive neat and clean cremation that we really couldn’t afford, and decided that it would be best to find out what really had been ailing her – and after some tears, I took her to the state lab for a necropsy in the passenger seat of my car. Objectivity is a great thing.
I’m now awaiting the arrival of my parents’ ashes in the US mail. I had planned to go and pick them up myself; I would have enjoyed another trip to Mr. Russell’s Victorian funeral home because frankly, and pardon my Yankee prejudice here, I think they know how to do things up north. All the funeral homes I’ve visited in Maryland have taken themselves way too seriously. If laughter can overtake us even as we’re mourning a loss, I think we lift up our departed to a much grander place than dark clothing and gloomy talk could ever do.
The flowers that bloom in the spring, Tra la,
Breathe promise of merry sunshine.
As we merrily dance and we sing, Tra la,
We welcome the hope that they bring, Tra la,
Of a summer of roses and wine,
Of a summer of roses and wine.
And that’s what we mean when we say that a thing
Is welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring.
Tra la la la la,
Tra la la la la,
The flowers that bloom in the spring.
— The Mikado, by Gilbert & Sullivan (played at my mother’s funeral)
Till next time,
Star Gazing Farm 501(c)3
A haven for retired farm animals and wayward goats