How Farm Life Taught Our Kids About Death
"Dress me in the clothes / I wore in the day's round. / Lay me in a wooden box. / Put the box in the ground." -- Wendell Berry's "Testament"
As lifelong city folk, rural life was new to my husband and me when we moved from Washington D.C. to an intentional Christian community on a farm in Illinois five years ago. For the first few years, we probably resembled the over-protective parents that Hanna Rosin critiques in The Atlantic as we warned our growing children to avoid electric fences, machine shops, farm implements, tractors, and even the creek.
The farm has become a unique setting for our kids to experience risk and reality. As parents, we've since learned about the bravery and self-assurance that comes from letting kids face dangers on their own. We've also observed surprising lessons about life and death.
Last fall, my farmer husband was ready to butcher the two-dozen geese that lived in our strawberry fields all season, weeding and otherwise creating a lot of noise and chaos. Our five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son wanted to follow their daddy out to the machine shop on that cold morning to watch. I was hesitant. I wondered if it would be good for them to witness the death and de-feathering of the geese they helped raise from goslings in our basement. But my daughter was so eager that I sent them out anyway.
When I went to check on them, I found my son with a look of sadness and disgust. "I don't want to stay here anymore," he said. My daughter, on the other hand, couldn't stop talking about it. "Look at this, Mom! They let me help! This is so cool!"
I led my son back to the house while she stayed in the machine shop the rest of the day. It wasn't the first time I thought: Was my daughter too excited by such gruesomeness? Were we teaching her things inappropriate for her age? Would my son be forever traumatized by what he'd witnessed?
Our culture is used to outsourcing anything related to death. Barely any of us kill the food we eat, so we can easily overlook death's role in the process. Even lifelong meat-eaters are uncomfortable with a hunter's enthusiasm in killing food to feed his family. Many who have purchased countless boneless, skinless, chicken breasts can't imagine a farmer killing a bird with her own hands.
When people die, we pay others to care for them and make arrangements. Our involvement is mostly distant and conceptual, focused on memories and prayers, rather than the embodied reality of death. I was fascinated when a friend told me about a funeral she attended where the family held a wake for a few days before they buried their loved one themselves. Are we missing part of the process of grieving because we have lost the practice of facing death with all its pain and sadness?
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