by Jen Hutson, CDA mom
First Blush with Death
I was standing at the great white barn on my grandparents’ property when I first witnessed death. Many a lucky spider found a home where the barn’s clapboard siding met the grass. One hot afternoon in later summer, my uncle offered to show me how a spider catches food in its web. I naively agreed, not comprehending the implications. Crickets were always in abundance on the farm and he placed one gingerly in the web. The spider ran on stilt legs and quickly wrapped its prey in silk. The cricket eventually gave up its fighting and I was flooded with guilt. I was complicit in the death of an innocent. There was proverbial (insect) blood on my hands. I remember feeling disturbed for weeks. It was my first taste of death and the absence left by a life’s ending, even one so inconsequential as a cricket.
Never would I have guessed, years later, my hobbies would include skinning and processing dead animals for preservation!
We are a people uncomfortable with death, whether it be roadkill or a relative. We have sanitized the process of dying and burial, and for good reason – we can’t have people burying family members in their neighborhood backyards. But, death used to be a more integral part of life – hunting and slaughtering animals for food, eliminating our own pests, the frequent passings of farm animals or family, and holding wakes in the family living room.
Industrialization and civilization are to be praised for many things! But, they have made us awkward with death. We stare at the floor, we squirm, we turn away. But our creator is not uncomfortable with death. He chose death to be the gruesome method of our beautiful redemption. As this passage from John 11 demonstrates, Jesus does not shrink from the stink of death. The glory of God radiates over the grotesqueness and frailty of it.
“Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:39-40)
To the people of the Bible, the original audience, death was a frequent experience, and so the descriptions of the Christian life as death and resurrection resonated acutely with the longings of their heart. Our contemporary world finds the concept of physical death nearly as repulsive as the idea of a spiritual one. Rather than working towards a good death, many of us fight to prolong life at all costs.
The Gifts of Encountering Death
But so what? How many of us actually want to reacquaint ourselves with death or step closer to examine an animal in rigor mortis? (I can attest, you need only smell one rotting maggot covered carcass to remember the smell for a lifetime.) Well, in not shying away from the gaze of death, specifically here I mean the animal kingdom, we gain several things.
1. First, we gain perspective.
Who are the farmers, hunters and fishers who provide much of our food? What processes and smells must they brave to do this? My boys haven’t field stripped a deer but they have salted a rabbit pelt and handled dead animals. They are familiar with the rank smells, the blood and guts of it all. Many of our families have a farming background somewhere in their ancestry. How did these ancestors live to provide food and animal products for life? What about other ancient peoples? The experiences lead us to conversations about pioneers, American Indians and others. What sacrifices and inconveniences were made on a daily basis that we barely comprehend? How did they honor or respect the death of loved ones and, often times, of animals?
2. Second, we gain understanding and associated wonder.
The natural world is a marvel, but much of it is hard to examine up close with our senses. When was the last time you held a baby chipmunk? My boys could say this summer. They felt its soft fur and small bushy tail. They saw the tiny precious details of its face and paws. When have you dissected a rabbit or looked at a backyard insect under a microscope? Or perhaps dissected an owl pellet and studied what the raptor ate from the remaining skeleton? Examining creation up close (usually easier when dead), reminds us of our good creator and the profound care and detail he put into his creation. Living creatures are engineering and physiological marvels!
3. Third is skill and knowledge.
If you eat meat, it’s good to know the parts of an animal you consume and how they are harvested. It’s good to understand the origin of animal goods – fur, leather, and products like gelatin. Knowing how to gut, skin, salt, or preserve, provide knowledge for the present and connection to the past – our own ancestors and even those of ancient civilizations. One could apply this understanding to even much of the reading of the Old Testament regarding sacrifice.
It should be noted there is a fine line between the beautiful and the morbid. One can take the fascination of death too far, but a healthy gaze is a gift to our minds and souls. For hundreds of years, Christians used memento mori (Latin for: remember you must die), as a call to better living while we wear flesh. Some Christians kept skulls or artwork with bones as a reminder to hold life as precious and fleeting, and to therefore strive for virtuous living.
I go on my first hunting trip this fall. I hear the deer population is down where I will be, but my fingers are crossed. Will have the chance to pull the trigger and process my first deer? Will I celebrate and grieve in unison if I do? Only God knows. But I can think to other times where sorrow and joy are two halves of the same moment. Can you?
If we have died with him, we will also live with him. (2 Timothy 2:11)
There are many practical opportunities to go deeper into the common arts that pertain or cross into the realm of death: hunting, animal husbandry, taxidermy, fishing, preserving, leatherworking etc.
Ready to dive in? You could:
- Order owl pellets to dissect and study.
- Get an inexpensive digital microscope and begin collecting dead insects to
- Ask to tagalong with a hunter on a trip.
- Visit a meat market and ask about the cuts along the counter. Where on the cow are the ribs, round, flank, brisket, shoulder, rump etc?
- Go on a hike and keep your eyes alert for bones in the woods. There are reliable books or websites that will help identify what you have found. You can even buy many legal skulls and bones online.
- Make a whole chicken and have your children help identify the parts of the chicken and how the skin, connective tissue, muscle and bone have different value to the chicken and to us the consumers.
- Take a leatherworking class or watch a YouTube on tanning.
- Visit a fair that shows animals or one of many farms in the area where you can learn about animal husbandry. Ask some of the youth showing what it’s like to raise animals.
- Buy preserved amphibians or small mammals to dissect at home.
- Go fishing or purchase a whole fish and examine the body.
- Ask your children what they know about the meat they eat. As toddlers they can begin to connect that bacon comes from pigs, hamburgers from cows etc.
- Read a book or watch a video about how indigenous people hunted and processed their meat. Why salt and tan? Why steward creation by using the entire animal nose to tail? Why do some people eat brain, liver, heart etc?
- Check out local museums that feature taxidermy or skeletal collections. Eagle Creek and Cool Creek Parks have extensive preserved bird collections; the Indiana State Museum has various mammals; and Koteewi Park has a large animal skull collection. And these are just starting places!
- For extra credit, when you find something dead, pull on gloves, get out some nail scissors and cut in and observe the organs you see with your children! (But be sure to double-bag and tie and sturdy knot when you dump the remains in the trash!)
Look for our third article in the Common Art Series.
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