My sweet, blind Henny passed away this past week from what I believe was congestive heart failure. She was older, and I knew the inevitable was coming. As much as we celebrate life on the homestead, death, too, is our sober companion. If you are sensitive to reading about this subject I understand if you want to skip this post and I strongly advise it. I’m going to be very frank and open about how we handle the more practical aspects of an animal’s passing. It’s not pretty, but it is the reality of life.
Those of you who live in the country know that there are cemeteries tucked here and there down almost every road or behind most every old farmhouse. In fact, there’s one on our property so old that all the headstones have worn down to nothing and we aren’t sure exactly where it is. For small animals like cats, hens, geese, most dogs, and even smaller sheep burial is an option. We keep a small critter grave yard fenced off from the rest of the farm. Our gentle Dagny is buried at the center.
If your ground is like ours it’s full of rocks and clay. Frankly, I can’t dig more than three or four feet down. We also sit down in a valley and our water table is usually closer to the surface than two feet. Shallow graves are pretty much the norm. I usually wrap the body at time of death in a plain muslin cloth before riggamortus sets in to hold a sleeping pose. In short, I use this process as a method of compacting the body’s shape to better fit into the grave. I then wrap the entire bundle in an outer cloth, tuck in herbs, tie with string, and then place it in the grave. The outer cloths and herbs help to cut down on the smells that attract scavengers. To help further the grave being left alone I place large rocks over the grave for several months.
I dislike using plastic bags to wrap. It slows the decomposition process and puts toxins into the ground. We also make sure that any burial is down stream of our water source and out of grazing and growing areas. If an animal dies during the winter when the ground is frozen we store the bundled body in our freezer. It’s macabre, but effective.
I know some people with the right land type that use a back hoe to bury large animals such as horses and cattle. Unfortunately we don’t have that option. But, I think it’s preferable personally.
When Lambi died I chose to have her cremated. It was a tough decision. I really wanted her buried next to Dagny. However, Lambi was over two hundred pounds. Not only could I not dig a grave, I had no way to move her body. Two vet techs came out from our vet’s office and retrieved her body. They were as caring and kind as if they were removing a human body. It cost almost $300 total. Lambi now resides in a box next to the front door. However, she was my first lamb and slept next to me. It was the best option available at the time.
Death Pits and Scavengers
This is my least favorite method of dealing with death on the farm, but it is effective. Those who have room can have a pit dug in an unused corner of the farm. When an animal passes you simply remove the body to the pit and allow nature to take its course. At the old farm we had a another tenant’s ewe die. So, Kate and I dragged her nearly a mile to the pit in the dark. When a cow died after an animal attack up in the wood line it was left. There simply was no way to move it. Sometimes the most dignified thing to do is simply to leave an animal’s remains alone. When this is a pet it’s difficult.
Some people find this controversial. However, there is some practicality to this method of dealing with impending death on the farm. My cow Bossy has many years left in her. Daisy our matriarch ewe has less than five. I check their teeth yearly. When they can no longer eat hay over the winter they will face a long suffering death from starvation. Let me be clear: starvation in an animal is painful. They bleed internally. It can take weeks. It’s cruel. So, instead of allowing them to suffer I personally will attend to their slaughter to ensure it’s quick and as painless as possible. It’s one of the few situations when we kill and eat our animals. However, it is the kindest option. It’s not pleasant, nor easy, nor done lightly. I will process out my old friends and use every part of their bodies to feed and cloth our household. I guess it’s the Blackfoot and Apache in me that comes out in those instances, or maybe the practical Welsh. I simply find it more honoring than leaving them to starve and become food for the vultures and coyotes.
I know this topic has been anything but pleasant. But I hope you found it informative, especially if you’re new to homesteading and farming. We do our best to treat our animals with respect and dignity during life. We also do our best to extend that respect and dignity into death. As caretakers of the land and her inhabitants we have the incredible privilege of witnessing the grandeur of life and lesson of the ending. Each one of us will in turn face our own ending and return to the earth to nourish her and become nourishment. Nourish life, and celebrate the lesson our companion offers.
Until Next time,
Craft No Harm,