By KIM BATEMAN | Moonshine Ink
I sat on the floor across from the vet who had just put down our 12-year-old yellow lab. Cody’s head was still in my lap and I could barely see through the tears. I heard him say, “And we need to talk about the disposition of the body.”
“OK,” I choked out, continuing to stroke the lifeless body; a brown, once- soulful eye still looking at me.
“You have three choices, and of course it is completely up to you. You can get an individual cremation, where you get the cremains in a wooden box embossed with the dog’s name on it. Or, you can opt for a group cremation, which costs less. You would not receive the cremains back.”
“And the third option?”
He looked at me seriously and said, “Well. They can render your dog. It would be no charge at all to you.”
“What is that?”
“They boil the animal to release the fat and then they skim it.”
“And what would you do with that?” I asked, my voice shaking.
“They use it to make candles and soaps, and some dog food companies add it as a fat in their products.”
The decision was simple, although expensive. I needed something as concrete as possible to continue to love, because I hadn’t stopped loving. I would not stop loving. The ashes could become the invisible lifeline through which I could still connect. And in that moment, I needed that.
We are taught from the earliest ages to build, create, and make — relationships, identities, structures, careers, businesses, pieces of art, ways of being. At the same time, we are actively conditioned to avoid complex feelings like pain, despair, insecurity, and anxiety — all of which can accompany bereavement. In our grief-challenged culture, we are not taught about dissolution, disintegration, or letting go. We are often left clinging to a loved one’s personal belongings as a physical reminder of the vibrant person who is no longer accessible to us. It can be so hard to imagine someone we love without us, and even harder to know who we are without them.
In the natural world, little is left to our imaginations, as all death actively feeds life. The carrion of each living thing provides food for another: fungus and dead branch, insect and leaf, osprey and trout, alligator and wildebeest. Our own lives are generously fed by the plants and animals who give themselves to our needs. Even stars, when they are dying, emit waves of clouds and dust over thousands of years, collapsing finally into black holes with a flourish. Each living entity gives of itself back to the whole so that life continues. And yet somehow, I would not consider allowing my dog’s body to be used for candles. I wanted to keep him as an identifiable integrity, held by the walls of that wooden box, as if that would help carve out a space for him. As if that meant he was still somewhat here.
My denial and my desperation are not unique. Even though death is natural and everyone and everything dies, many of us think of it as preventable. Of course, we should do everything we can to help someone live, until it reaches the vague point where we need to shift, and help them die. But it is strange how we think of death as a personal failure, as a character flaw, when truly it is an ecological imperative. Perhaps we express our final resistance by containing our bodies in coffins or urns or small wooden boxes, assuring that something physical remains ours to keep.
Since ancient times, people have buried their dead at sea, in caves, in trees, under the earth, or above ground in sky burials. Wrappings were simple: hand woven blankets, rocks, or animal skins. Some of the earliest remaining graves show bones in a fetal position with cowrie shells rubbed with red ochre arranged in the shape of an egg. This practice has its origins in planting and summons the archetype of descent and resurrection — the release of rich nutrients, return to the womb of Mother Earth, being cradled, awaiting rebirth. The cowrie shells look like pelvises and the ochre, like blood. Psychologically, old ways of being have died and we trust that new ways of being will be birthed.
Simple coffins developed later to protect the body of the dead from predators and some say, to keep the wandering spirit of the dead enclosed so that it would not become confused and return to us. During the late 1800s, grave markers evolved into a measure of status — ornate headstones showed how much you valued your lost loved one. Modern practices include extravagant, hermetically sealed coffins that are guaranteed to house loved ones who are chemically preserved in embalming fluid for hundreds of years. These expensive practices may offer the fantasy of permanence. Interestingly, in so doing we make sure that we will not rejoin the elements; that our bodies will most certainly not feed anything else.
Several weeks after our dog’s death, we received Cody’s ashes in a small box with a note proclaiming that he has crossed the rainbow bridge. In Balinese and Hindu cultures, it is believed that the soul ascends with the smoke and is purified by removing the constraints of the physical body. Looking at the ashes, I believe it to be true and know that very little is left of the dog we so loved. The ashes are colorless, odorless, cold (missing their previous fire), devoid of life and nutrients. It occurred to me that when meat is charred, you can no longer eat it. Cremation ensures little ability to integrate into the natural systems.
Later, during a small ceremony with family, I threw a handful of Cody’s ashes into the river and looked at my empty hand. It was coated in white dust and there were tiny crystals glistening in the sun. These albino ashes were the antithesis of the colorful fleshiness of a lion gnawing on an antelope leg, a frog’s tongue encircling a fly, an eagle’s talons digging into salmon skin, a raccoon feasting on junco eggs, maggots writhing through a sheep’s hindquarter, autumn leaves rotting in the rain — death now was as it was meant to be — a natural part of feeding life; a surrender of the one to support the whole.
Yet our connections to these natural rhythms are still vaguely present in our ancestral memories. On any Sunday throughout the world, Catholics symbolically eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. In Papau New Guinea, there is a practice of ritually cutting a piece of the deceased person’s body and eat it to incorporate the soul of the dead. Downriver from where I live, the Donner Party may have survived off of the flesh of their family and friends to make it through the winter of 1847.
Back at our riverside ceremony, I looked at my dusty hand and turned it in the sun so the sharp diamonds of bone and teeth glistened. And I just couldn’t help it, but very slowly and deliberately, I licked each finger clean.