Today I got a phone call from a man who told me that he was going to die soon. It wasn’t exactly consistent with the scope and tone of inquiries we receive here at the CCE office, but then again, it kind of is. We get so many different calls here that I am no longer surprised by the questions and comments we receive over the phone and by email. My new motto in my office is “we got you covered,” and I feel that this is true of all of the departments here in the Ulster County Extension office. From the “how many calories are in a big mac?” to “my dog was attacked by a raccoon last night!” we get all kinds of inquiries here and are happy to do our best to point each of our clients in the right direction. So when I got this phone call I was not particularly surprised since this individual had come across an article that I had written about the process of composting human remains.
Most people do not realize the intimate connection that farmers have with death and dying. Breeding many generations on the farm, and living in and with nature, provides both a frame and magnifier into the mysteries and processes of death. Farmers and ranchers understand that death is part of life and deserves the same reverence and respect as the beginning of life. This man on the phone had a preference that most of us can understand…he wished to be buried on his family farm.
I was more than happy to guide him to the appropriate channels and safeguards to ensure that what he was doing was both legal and safe. To most farmers a human body is relatively easy to compost simply because we are much smaller compared to some of our livestock. And since nothing on the farm is wasted, most ranchers compost their animals and use the nutrient rich fertilizer that is produced to enrich their pastures or gardens.
Besides farmers, the other major composter in the area is the highway department. With the overpopulation of both deer and cars on our roadways there are many wildlife fatalities every day. The highway department soon realized that pilling up the roadkill would be offensive to both the nose and eyes and would attract unwanted attention from wild animals. They realized that their best option was to compost the remains of the roadkill which would safely dispose of the animals, would not attract wild animals to the area, and would make a value-added product out of what was previously considered waste. The only caveat is that composting needs to be carefully controlled and monitored. There is an art to composting. When done right it is beneficial to everyone but when done wrong, or neglected, there is a real opportunity loss.
The man who called was already aware of issues and intricacies of composting and I think that he was seeking more than just technical assistance in that he was looking for some kind words and support in his endeavor. I let him know that I would do all that I could to ensure that he was in compliance and that he could spend his eternity in the most comfortable place he had ever known…home. It is not often that I get calls about death, but it helps me to know that death and farming are sisters and it is in the acknowledgement of their intimate relationship that we are able to better understand our place and our farm’s place in nature.