Death and Mourning on a Homestead

Last week, we lost one of our older chickens, Goldie. The night before, she settled onto her usual roost among the younger chickens in the coop. The next morning we discovered she had passed in her sleep, slipping to the floor to be found by Elizabeth when checking for eggs. As with all of our hens, we gingerly bundled her up and brought her inside. 

We can't bury her right away because the ground is frozen solid. Instead, Goldie is resting in the deep freezer waiting for the spring thaw. This arctic blast we're currently going through has me concerned for our flock's health, and reminds me of the lessons we've taught our kids about death and mourning on a homestead. Each memory tugs a little more at our hearts.

Death isn't a foreign notion for homesteading families. Many rural and urban homesteading communities have small children who often learn before their non-farming peers about the life and death realities of pets and livestock. Sometimes of the people they love as well. All living things are born into this world, and each finds its path the best way it can. 

Pets and livestock have more of a guiding hand from their owners in life choices, but the end result is still the same. Mother hens teach chicks what the best forage is when free-ranging. Momma dogs teach puppies the lessons of love, empathy and loyalty. Goats teach their kids about community and how to be happy. We teach our children about family and independence and life and death on a homestead.

Death and Mourning on a Homestead

Some of our NH Reds
Goldie was one heck of a chicken. She came to us as a retired layer from my brother's farm when we were looking to add some new breeds into the flock as pets. She was sweet, a little aloof and a gorgeous example of Araucana breeding. She came along with us from our old backyard homestead when we moved, and when we had our trouble with raccoons, she had the sense and instinct to stay alive. 

Death came to four chickens that night and we have since reinforced the lock on the brood door. Goldie was anxious and in mourning for a time after that, so she spent more than one night residing in our master bath in the shower stall. That was Wendie's decision, and I supported her.

When we culled from our meat flock this past fall to add to the egg coop, Goldie found herself at the tail end of the pecking order. She just didn't look like the others, though Sunshine, our last Isa Brown, fit in just fine with her similar colorations and size. Goldie took it with a grain of salt, and once again found her way on her own terms. She was quiet, demure and patient when feeding time came. I suppose she met death with the same resolution.

Her passing hit the kids hard. Though we won't bury her until the spring, the mourning has begun.

Early Urban Homesteading Lessons

urban homesteading
Elizabeth with the ladies
All those years ago, we started our flock with six Isa Browns. I remember the day we brought them home and set them up in their little chick nursery. Even then, they each had the beginnings of personality. Wendie swore we would keep them as pets and treat them as such when they stopped laying, disregarding my grumpy approach. I suggested we could still use them as stew birds but she would have none of it. It took a while, but now I agree with her. 

The kids were in love, and having that attachment to an animal that wasn't really livestock and wasn't really a house pet helped them begin to learn. It helped them learn the realties of urban homesteading and about where our food comes from. 

They learned  empathy and compassion for living things. About how life is beautiful and worthy of appreciation. When a Peregrin falcon took one of our original six birds from our backyard homestead that first summer, they also learned how mourning was natural and that death would eventually come to all of the flock.

The idea to incorporate a pet cemetery onto the homestead was something that came fairly early. This meant any death that came in the winter would require using our deep freezer to house those lost friends until spring came back around. The mourning would begin, but we won't say our final farewell until the animal is in the ground. For Goldie, she still has a couple of months to go.

Homesteading Life is Beautiful

life is beautiful
Bruce the Rooster
Beyond our flock of thirteen egg layers and Bruce the rooster, we might have up to forty or so chickens on the homestead during our meat bird season. They come in scrawny and scared, but soon adjust and start packing on the pounds through late summer and early fall. 

The majority are destined for the butcher, and the kids know this, forming a different relationship with these temporary guests. The girls know that life is beautiful and to be respected, but there is also an understanding of what this flock means for our kitchen. These birds get not names. Homesteading off the grid means providing as much for ourselves as we can, and though these broilers live a respected and healthy life, it will be a short one.

Death is a lesson that all kids learn eventually. Whether it's through their own accidental actions with a BB gun or by attending a grandparent's funeral. Death doesn't take it's time to be introduced to children. Our job to is help make sense of it, explain what we can in an honest fashion and trust them as empathetic beings to come to terms with the realities of living.

Homesteading Today

homesteading today
Some ladies enjoy their new coop
Homesteading today is just as rewarding a life as it was years ago. Gardens are planted and harvested. New life is brought into the world in comfy hay-strewn stalls in the barn. Predators and age bring death to old friends.

Mourning the death of one of our animals is a reminder of how life is beautiful and how it is a part of us all. Homesteading is all about teachable moments, especially with the passing of a beloved pet chicken. It doesn't happen with frequency, but when it does, we all come away changed. 

In the spring, we will bury Goldie in our little cemetery beneath a stone with a marker. She will be remembered and missed as we say a few words over her grave, our homesteading way of saying goodbye.

We love sharing our experiences with you about life on an off the grid homestead, and would truly enjoy hearing your stories as well. Have you ever used the death of pet to teach kids about mourning? How do your experiences homesteading today help others to discover how life is beautiful and that the life cycle is something we are all a part of? Please join the conversation below.