Tuesday, August 19th, 2014
“Bring out yer dead!” Utter this phrase, and any Monty Python fan will immediately begin chortling, no matter the solemnity of the occasion or impropriety of the response.
Last fall, when dear Toby the old brown dog was failing and had stopped eating, I called the vet out. I was weeping, thinking it was Toby’s last day. Upon hearing the car arrive, however, Toby got up energetically from his bed, and bounded out of the house. I felt hopeful and perplexed, but Peter the vet just said in a jolly British accent, “I’m not dead yet!”, got in his car, and told me he would come back another day.
For someone whose first corpse was experienced at age 42, I’ve managed to rack up a lot of dead bodies in the latter part of my life. But that first death sent me to bed for two days. She was a beautiful, big, black rabbit named Star. So I have a lot of empathy for people who don’t have the benefit of regularly seeing life end. It takes practice. And anyone who can once and for all “get over” the experience is probably a sociopath. But eventually, one becomes more adept at the practical side of it. Black humor helps.
Last week our beloved Burrito the little mischievous old lady goat passed away. She had a tumor in her head. She put up a good fight, and I’ve no doubt she would have lasted a long time yet were it not for this uninvited incursion into her sinus cavity. I had driven her to the hospital at University of Pennsylvania where they performed the diagnostics – and ultimately humanely euthanized her. So I drove back to Maryland with a deceased Burrito in the car with me. Occasionally I reached back and petted her, as though she might have felt it still. Denial is a very strong, human thing. My purpose was to bring her back to the farm so that the other animals could see her, and have closure. Animals don’t practice denial. I know and have observed that they feel grief and loss, but they also appear to accept death more naturally than the opposable thumb lot does. They approach the body, sniff, sometimes stay a little bit, and then leave. And that is that. It can be disruptive to a herd when one of their members dies – it changes the group dynamic. However, it’s far more disruptive and distressing when a flock member simply disappears. They assume the worst: auctionhouse, butcher, sausage. You can hardly blame them. It’s what happens to just about all of their cousins.
The next day I brought Burrito to the local pet crematorium. “I’ve got a body in the car”, I announced blithely to the kind, elderly lady manning the front desk. She smiled (I suppose she’s heard every mortician’s joke too many times) and asked me to pull around to the side. And thus I got my first view ever of the inside of a crematorium. It was huge, vast, with cavernous round ovens and fans running everywhere. She told me, proudly, that the oven on the left could handle 6,000 pounds. While I was vaguely thinking about 6,000 pound animals and dust in the air, my mind wandered to the funeral home that helped me with my father and mother. It’s housed in an old Victorian house on Wayland Square in Providence, Rhode Island. They recently opened a pub next door that is doing a booming business. The owner and I exchanged some dead body jokes which, I must say, helped hoist me back up to coherency as I coped with the biggest loss of my life.
I think we need this relationship with death. This hands-on, thumbing-my-nose-and-blowing-raspberries dance with death.
Last October, our 32 year old horse Louie sickened very suddenly and died within a day. Jean-Claude the llama had adopted Louie as his mama from the day he arrived at the farm as a little tyke and tried to nurse from him on a regular basis. As Jean-Claude matured, he turned the tables and began trying to mount Louie. This old gelding took it all in stride and simply let Jean-Claude be who he was – and they were rarely 10 feet apart from each other. Each spring we had to bring Louie out when it was time to shear Jean-Claude, or else the llama would become violently upset.
When the gravedigger came to bury this good old horse, Jean-Claude walked up to watch. We lowered Louie into the enormous hole, and Jean-Claude hovered on the edge, trying to find a way to climb down inside it. We had to shoo him away. The hole was covered. Jean-Claude then rolled around thoroughly in the dirt on top of the grave, jumped up, and ran off, neck gleefully swinging in his llama dance. He never looked back.
Through watching these animals, I hope that I, too, have gotten better at not looking back. And I hope that there is someone to dance on my grave, when I follow my animals onward to Zion.
Till next time,
Star Gazing Farm 501(c)3
A haven for retired farm animals and wayward goats