Death is a Fact of Life
“Phamous is dead”
Those were the first words I heard my wife say as she entered the house after morning chores. She had obviously been crying.
It had been a tragic accident, most details of which are still a mystery. Strong and magnificent though they may be, horses are also surprisingly delicate. Like gigantic toddlers, horses also have an uncanny ability to get themselves into trouble and in the most unusual ways.
This was not the first time I have been exposed to equine death. A year or so ago, I witnessed an accident during an event on cross country. I was called to assist in restraining the horse as veterinarians were faced with no other humane alternative than to give it the ‘pink juice.’ It was hard. I cried.
I am not going to say that life with horses has caused me to think about death in new ways. But what it has done is highlight the fact that death is a part of life. When it happens, there’s no hiding the fact. There are no nurses to frame and sanitize the situation. There is no hiding what happens to a body in the few hours between death and burial. There is dignity, of course. There is sadness and mourning. But these events are also raw and pragmatic. There is no sugar coating. It is what it is.
When Elisa told me of Phamous’s tragic passing, my first reaction was disbelief, followed by an inclination to keep the event at arm’s reach. I wanted it to remain abstract. I didn’t want to see the body.
The heavy machinery arrived to dig the grave and move the body. I ventured outside to be with Elisa as she watched the burial. There it was. The body looked like a Breyer horse. Imobile. Nature had begun to take its course. Phamous had left the building.
It was a hard day for Elisa, but death was not something she could ignore. She removed Phamous’s shoes and cut his tail to give to his owner. She ensured that all necessary arrangements were made. Difficult though it may have been for her, I watched as being forced to deal with the reality of the situation brought peace and closure. She noted that, had she not dealt with Phamous’s death in this way, she would have experienced it as a sudden absence, and in a way that would have made closure a challenge. As it was, there was continuity. For her, Phamous didn’t just disappear. He went away, and she saw him go.
I don’t know exactly how to translate this in terms our our modern (urban) experience of death and dying. To be honest, the experience is still something I’m wrapping my head around. But there is something beautiful and good about how life is experienced on a farm that highlights how inhumane and counterproductive we sometimes are as we shroud the rawest of experiences in veils of abstraction.
Originally published at Timothy D. Harfield.