I had to bury a dog in my backyard yesterday. She was a light brown mongrel and came up to about my knee—not huge, but not tiny, either. She showed up in the neighborhood a few months ago and gave birth to a couple of puppies under a neighbor’s water tank. She came around my house a few times and I fed her, so she and the puppies mostly hung around. A few days ago, she went off somewhere and came back with a wound. We tried to patch her up as best we could, and she seemed to be stabilizing, but eventually she died on the lawn, which had been stained violet from the iodine antiseptic.
But now I had to figure out what to do with her. I chose a spot at the back of the house, between the protruding roots of an old, flamboyant tree, right next to what’s now a well-fertilized plantain crop. (Years ago, one of my brothers, not grasping the reality of the situation, excitedly reported that our neighbor had “planted” one of his dead puppies.) With a rusty hoe and a crooked fork, I managed to loosen the stony ground before digging a hole a couple feet deep. I cut open an old flour bag, wrapped her in it, and lowered her in. There were no last rites, but I did mark her grave with a few pieces from the trunk of a fallen coconut tree.
For those of us who are fortunate, animals bring us the most immediate reminders of how nasty, brutish, and short life is. Back when I had cats, some mornings I’d discover a streak of blood and feathers leading into the kitchen, where my wards had deposited the evidence of their continued commitment to the upkeep of the premises. Just this week, a friend told me that two of her quail had murdered another. (Apparently a lack of protein, combined with unbearable heat, can turn quail into homicidal maniacs.)
I’ve always tried to stay away from the messy business of the dying and the dead; I’ve managed to avoid all bedside vigils. Being around death requires a strong constitution—stronger, at any rate, than mine. This may be why so many of the mortuary employees I know are raging alcoholics while I generally prefer herbal tea.
A boy down the road got a little job working at the funeral parlor. He washed the dead bodies and showed up at the funerals in his ill-fitting suits, riding shotgun on the motorcycle-drawn carriages. We once asked him how it felt to deal with the dead all day. He said, Sometimes they have so much of dead to wash in a day you just get accustom. After a fight with his girlfriend, he took a swig from a bottle of Gramoxone he stored under his house. His family got him to drink some muddy water to work as an antidote. It helped a little; he lasted a week. (Rest in peace, Swag Dada.)
The dead remind me that I, too, not only have a body but am a body—no matter the answer to the problem of consciousness, entropy wins in the end. A few years ago, a close friend died of cancer. She was abroad during her final months, and just weeks before she was supposed to fly, she got too sick to travel. At that point there was nothing to be done, and a hospice was set up at her daughter’s home, where she died. A few months later, her daughter visited my parents and showed my mother the pictures from her deathbed. They inadvertently left the e-mail window open, and when I sat down at the computer, the images suddenly leapt out at me.
I’ve seen a few dead people, but this was different. No washing, no makeup, no flowers: just an emaciated figure with a slight resemblance to someone I once knew. Some people cherish these images; some people toss valuables in the caskets of their loved ones out of a sense of—well, I’ll have to ask, one of these days. My mother isn’t like that. She just needed to see the images of her dead friend to gain some closure. But they were real enough to me, and I have my own way of dealing with these things. I signed out, closed the page, and went to watch some TV.
Matthew St. Ville Hunte lives in Saint Lucia. He is one of the Daily’s correspondents.