Thoughts on Dignity and the Disposal of Corpses

As we pulled into the driveway yesterday afternoon from an art exhibit to which our friends and neighbors Bill and Carole had invited us, I noticed something in the driveway just outside the left side of the garage door. On first glance, it looked like a small squirrel, but on closer inspection, after we had pulled into the garage and I had parked, I could see that it was a large bird, a dead bird. Having participated in a bird identification workshop offered by the Hot Springs Village Audubon Society a year or so ago, I recognized it as a Brown Thrasher.

My wife did not see the dead bird. When I mentioned it, she said, “I don’t want to see it.” She circled around the front of the car and along the wall to get to the door leading into the house as I closed the garage door, shielding her from the view.

I considered whether I should dispose of the bird’s body immediately, but decided to let it wait. Perhaps a scavenger, a fox or coyote or vulture, would come across it and take it away; that’s the natural order of things, I reasoned. I wondered what might have caused the bird’s death; could it have simply slammed into the garage door during flight, breaking its neck? Might it have been the victim of a hawk’s talons and beak? I saw no obvious evidence of injury.

Perhaps the bird simply died of old age. I’ve often wondered about the natural course of life for birds and, for that matter, all sorts of wild animals. What is their old age like? Do they wither and, eventually, simply succumb to the natural decline of age, or are they more apt to be killed and eaten as they become less capable of defending themselves? I’d like to read an essay by a knowledgeable naturalist or ornithologist about the death of birds. It’s not morbid curiosity, is it? Isn’t it just simple curiosity?

This morning, I opened the garage door in preparation for taking the trash to the street for pickup by sanitation crews later in the day. I saw the dead bird, still in the same place as yesterday afternoon. I slipped on a pair of disposable latex gloves, picked up the bird, and put it in one of the two bags I took to the street. The act of discarding a corpse in such a way seemed undignified and heartless to me; I felt as if I should have taken the bird’s body to a spot for a proper burial or placed it on a rock in the woods for appropriate disposal by carrion-eaters. Yet the former option is, indeed, unnatural and I’d already tried the latter (albeit only overnight) to no avail. So I sit and wonder about the callousness of throwing a body, even a bird’s body, in the trash. Eventually, it will no doubt be consumed by ants (some of which had already begun to feast on it and which joined the corpse in the trash sack).

Death is natural. Though I don’t know the matter of this bird’s death, I know its death was inevitable, as is it for every living creature. So, perhaps the manner of disposal is not important. Given enough considered rational thought, we might all come to believe that the appropriate disposal of bodies, whether human or found bird, after death is the province of sanitation workers and not funeral directors.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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