The overabundance of funerals in my family over the last month has me thinking about a lot of things, death naturally being one of them. When I returned to the farm two weeks ago, I felt much more attuned to the ebb and flow of life here - the balance of predator and prey, the birth of baby goats destined to become goat burgers, the knowledge that our Peking ducks will be ready to process in just a month.
In her book Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Barbara Kingsolver notes the increasing distance between Americans and their food. She describes how few people in this country have ever processed a chicken or lamb or cow. Instead, we go to the grocery store, where we purchase the appropriate part all nice and clean in its styrofoam and cellophane packaging, beautiful beneath the flourescent lighting, bearing no hint of its messy beginning.
It’s a disturbing train of thought. How many of us can say with certainty which part of the steer originally housed our rib eye steak or chuck roast? In the store, thighs and breasts, ribs and shanks, are all completely devoid of their original context. So few people today have anything to do with their own food production, lacking even a lonely tomato plant to dot their lawn. We think of food as it appears in the supermarket: clean, unblemished, stacked neatly into tall piles and organized by color.
This separation between animal and human has ramifications that reach beyond our dinner plate. It speaks to something far more substantial: our relationship with death.
For many, the only time we encounter the dead is when a loved one passes away. Often, we do not witness the moment of their passing. Only later do we see them turned out at a viewing or funeral, the product of modern embalming practices. With rituals like these, it is no wonder that so many people find death to be upsetting, disturbing, and even traumatic.
Death and farming are remarkably intertwined. I saw my first livestock death about six weeks ago, when a sick chicken needed to be put down in case it was contagious. Brian took it and hung it upside down by its feet, before using a knife to slice the major vein running down the size of its neck. The chicken shuddered. Then it flapped wildly. Then it was still.
It was my first time to see the death of an animal on the farm... but it won't be my last.
All of which makes me wonder: does being exposed to death on a farm make it more acceptable in life? It's hard to say. I don't think it makes it any easier, necessarily. But I think that it makes death a little less traumatic.
On a farm, as in nature, death does not happen arbitrarily. The chicken is sick, Old Yeller needs to be put down, the lamb will be eaten and respected as part of our meal. There is always a reason. Death is merely one step in a long chain of events - and not necessarily the last one.
If more consumers were involved in their food, up to and including witnessing and perhaps helping with its death and processing, then I have no doubt that they would be much more mindful of how they used that animal. And if we were more exposed to death and its effects on the farm, then we might be a little better prepared to meet with it in life.