Halloween is just around the corner. In the spirit of the season, I’m going to tell you about my brief spell as a gravedigger.
By “brief spell,” I mean I have dug exactly one grave in my entire life. But it was a mass grave, if that counts for anything.
If you have been following my blog for a while (hello to all four of you!), you know that my brother and I sometimes look after our friend’s farm while he is traveling. While each of our farm-sitting adventures has had its fair share of challenges, we must not be so terrible at it that he vowed never to enlist us again. Our friend, here called N, recently traveled to Paris where I can only assume he spent every waking moment looking out over the Seine as he feasted on baguettes, fondue, and pastries. It’s a rough life, but I guess someone’s got to do it.
My brother and I felt pretty confident walking into the gig this time. We thought we were farm-sitting pros. We’d dealt with rain. We’d dealt with snow. You name it. This was going to be a piece of cake.
Getting away from our apartment was great. After over a year of remote work from my kitchen table/desk/storage space, it was nice to work from the most Instagramable place I’ve ever seen. Work emails don’t seem so obnoxious when read from a quaint farmhouse while listening to goats and chickens through the open window and the snores of a dozing bulldog at your feet. Our first day on the farm passed in a haze of #cottagecore bliss.
Then came the night.
When the day was coming to an end and it was time to begin the evening chores, I started out to the farmyard by myself because my brother had a call he needed to take (of course he did). At first, everything was business as usual. I got the goats to stop headbutting one another and climbing things they shouldn’t by bribing them with treats. I pulled out my inner prom chaperone and stopped all the ducks from getting frisky with one another. I observed the geese being generally terrifying. Everything was normal.
Everything was normal, that is, until I saw the dead chicken by the fence. It was lying face-down in the mud with it’s wings spread out looking like a white, feathery pancake. My first thought was, “Now how in the world did someone else’s dead chicken get into our farmyard?” Once the initial shock wore off, I conceded that this poor bird was probably ours and that it…fell? Ran into a tree? Died of old age halfway across the yard?
I wasn’t ready to confront the awful truth.
To protect the other chickens from this traumatic sight (you know how easily rumors can get out of hand when folks see a tragedy and don’t have all the information), I decided to round them up and put them in their coop for the night. Only when I began exploring the rest of the farmyard did I realize something was very wrong.
While there were several healthy chickens running here and there, there were many other chickens about that were…less healthy. A few were lying stiffly with their feet in the air. They stared at me with unblinking eyes that said, “We trusted you to protect us, but all you wanted was to use us in your Instagram story.” All that remained of most of them, however, were simply piles of feathers.
I’ve seen enough horror movies in my time to know that it’s not a good sign when your farm animals start disappearing, and the general atmosphere around me was definitely horror movie-esque. At this point the sun had completely vanished and it had started to drizzle ever so slightly. Every shadow seemed threatening. With every dead chicken I saw, my mind concocted even worse stories. I’m sure you can imagine my foreboding as I walked through the twilit yard knowing that whatever killed fourteen chickens (I capped the body count at fourteen when I found the last mangled chicken corpse by the far fence at the edge of the woods) was near, possibly prowling just outside the range of my iPhone flashlight. I mulled each different possibility over in my mind.
Best-case scenario: A bloodthirsty fox.
Worst-case scenario: A demigorgon from the Upside Down.
As I closed the door to the chicken coop on twelve living chickens who would undoubtedly need to see a therapist for the rest of their lives, my heart sank. To call a trusted friend and tell him we’d let one of his pets die was a nightmare. To call a trusted friend and tell him we’d let fourteen of his pets die was unthinkable.
Fortunately for my brother and me, N kept his cool and was nothing but kind. He assured us that these things happen (I didn’t ask him when he’d ever let fourteen animals die on his watch) and suggested the culprit might be a coyote. He did, however, ask us if we would be willing to bury the dead chickens. I felt so guilty about the murder of his pets that I’d have given over my firstborn child if he’d asked. Of course I agreed to bury the chickens.
Now, it may come as a shock to you that chicken burial was not charted territory for me at this point. Not once in nineteen years of school did a teacher or professor ever begin a sentence with, “Ok, class, if you ever need to dispose of the bodies of four and a half chickens…” This was very much off the syllabus.
Nevertheless, my brother and I trooped out to the farmyard first thing the following morning, shovels slung over our shoulders. When we’d selected a burial site, we simply looked at each other for a moment before acknowledging the elephant – or chicken, I guess – in the room. How deep was a chicken grave supposed to be? After Siri failed to be of any use whatsoever, I did a little mental math. If a six-foot-tall man would be laid to rest six feet underground, it stood to reason that some one-and-a-half-foot-tall chickens should be buried under one and a half feet of earth. With the logistics out of the way, we got to work.
It was quiet as we dug. Perhaps grief had silenced the other animals. Maybe they were paying their respects. It could be that they were all still traumatized from the massacre they’d witnessed.
When we deemed the grave deep enough, I let my brother put on the finishing touches while I set about collecting the dead. There was no way in chicken Hell I was picking up these birds with my hands, so I used my shovel to scoop each corpse into a wheelbarrow (which is much easier said than done). Just think of that guy from Monty Python and the Holy Grail who goes around with a cart screaming, “BRING OUT YOUR DEAD!” That was me. After I’d collected them all, I dumped them into the hole. They were a jumble of wings and legs and gobbly things. After a final sad look at our poor poultry, my brother and I filled the grave. We even piled some rocks on top the grave as a marker (and as a precaution in case coyotes can smell dead chickens below the earth).
Finally we stepped back, examining our handiwork.
“Should we say something?” I asked quietly.
My brother just looked at me.
“Don’t you think we should say something to send them off?” I persisted.
“What did you have in mind?” he asked.
Finally, after my brother and I had recapped every funeral we’d ever attended, I decided it would be fitting to read the twenty-third Psalm. Shepherds and pastures seemed appropriate for a farmyard funeral.
We ended up rounding out the service with an improvised duet of Amazing Grace. Despite a few extended fits of the church giggles, it was likely the nicest send off any chickens ever had. It may have been overkill, I know, but it was important to me that we do this right. Considering my current vocational trajectory, it’s entirely possible I’ll play a key role in many funerals to come.
And no, I haven’t decided to become a professional gravedigger.
With any luck, funerals will only be a small minority of the community-oriented ceremonies I take part in. You see, I’ve decided to go to divinity school.
My decision to attend divinity school may come as a surprise to some of you. In a way, it came as a surprise to me too. In other ways, however, this decision has been a long time coming; tapping on my shoulder long before I paid it any mind.
“Sully, what are you hoping to do with a degree from divinity school?” you may ask.
Well friends, that’s a fabulous question. For the first time in my life, I am without any clear end goal. And we aren’t panicking! *Breathes frantically into paper bag*
There are many ways in which one can put a divinity school degree to use. Rather than focusing on a single one just yet, I’m choosing to keep an open mind until I’ve gathered more information. Like, a lot more. Enough to guide me organically down a path that feels authentic to me; one that leads me to “the place where the world’s greatest need and [my] greatest joy meet.” (Thanks for that lovely phrase, Frederick Buechner.)
Some of you are likely wondering what this means for my musical career. I choose to see this as an addition to my life, rather than a replacement for music. I will always be a musician, and I will continue to sing professionally and will keep working to make music at the highest attainable level. Divinity school is a separate endeavor, but it isn’t unconnected. In many ways, this path is a natural extension of my musical journey. Of all the things I love about being a musician, community, ritual, human connection, and active empathy are the greatest.
And after all, what is music if not the human attempt to capture something divine?