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  • Writer's pictureKaren L Kurtz


Updated: May 20

It seemed like an ethical dilemma at the time. A situation where you do what you have to, so you can look a young girl in the eye and tell her the truth about her beloved chicken.

First, I need to explain that my friend Sarah and I go back forty years. She is a friend for all seasons. The seasons of life and the climate-type, too. When I moved to the country, we decided to meet after work each day to walk the dirt road from their Walnut Lane farm, down to the main highway and back. Whatever the weather―come blizzards, downpours, or steaming humidex―we couldn’t be dissuaded from our walk. It was therapy; any insanity going on in our lives usually got worked out in that hour of walking and talking.

The second thing to understand is that Sarah’s kids are dear to me, just as mine are to her. So when young Laura, who always had a mélange of pets in and about the house, needed someone to feed them while their family was on vacation, I was glad to help out.

Tending to Laura’s pets didn’t take much time out of my day. I always enjoyed going to Walnut Lane. Built circa 1880, it was a farmstead that stirred up nostalgia. It had just the right symmetry―the perfect lines and balance that make one want to stop and set up an easel.

They always left clear notes: this food for that cage, only a sprinkle for the aquarium, the hamster needs to run around inside the plastic ball while you tend to the other pets, etc. The animals changed from one year to the next, given the life span of some. I wasn’t always asked to tend to them but was delighted when it was my turn. This particular year one of the pets was Bucky.

Bucky imprinted on humans when she was hatched under the watchful eyes and care of a classroom of adoring second graders. At the end of the school year, Laura's teacher raffled off the chicks to kids who had written permission to bring one home. Bucky couldn’t have been luckier. The chicken led a pampered life at Walnut Lane. She was content being cuddled and well-fed. She nested into a corner of the old chicken house. The following winter when the temperatures dipped dangerously low, Laura rescued Bucky from the cold and convinced her parents that her chicken needed to live in their furnace room during the cold spell, which turned out to be most of that winter.

You have to understand that Indiana winters can be brutal. There is a point on the thermometer which I've arbitrarily chosen as “absolute zero”―that absolutely unthinkable point where Celsius and Fahrenheit meet: -40. The chill factor in both Indiana and Ontario drop that low sometimes, and that’s the kind of winter it was when Bucky moved indoors at Walnut Lane.

The summer when their family went on vacation, Bucky was back outdoors. She seemed to look forward to hearing how my day was going, (but thinking back, maybe she was more interested in the food I brought her. She did enjoy her meals.) It was a jolt one morning to find that Bucky had died in the night. All I could think of was Laura’s little face and how heartbroken she’d be when she learned the news. There were no cell phones back then, so I couldn't call Sarah and Kent to ask what should be done.

When I was growing up on our farm, many animals reached the end of their lives. Burials were unsentimental. Our tractor with the front-end forklift would come out, a hole would be gouged into the earth beneath the manure pile and the carcass would find its resting place. Dust to dust.

But what to do about Bucky? It wasn’t that I had a strong bond with her. I didn’t really believe that chickens themselves needed a ceremonial send off. Animals seem to already know that all of us creatures are a part of the great round. And that death is a natural part of the cycle. But I needed to be able to tell Laura the truth if she asked. . .that in her absence, her pet had been buried with the kind of respect she would have wanted for Bucky.

So that is how I ended up spending the morning searching for the right place and carefully digging a hole and thinking about what words are appropriate to say over the grave of a chicken. What came to me was something I’d heard from indigenous tradition. It wasn’t exactly how the Navaho prayer went, but it seemed like a good wish for Bucky: beauty before me/ beauty behind me/ beauty above me/ beauty around me.

That night I worried that I should have found a stone to mark the grave, so Laura could find it if I wasn’t there when they arrived home. The next day I walked along the edge of the field until I found one that seemed right and placed it where Bucky was buried.

I left a note telling Sarah and Kent what had happened. I don’t know how they broke the news to Laura. The conversation I’d imagined having with her about Bucky’s burial never happened. Perhaps Laura already understood that life naturally includes death. She was a very bright child. To be honest, I felt a little silly afterward, having talked myself into having a funeral for a chicken. And on the surface, it was kind of a funny story I've told lightheartedly over the years since.

The remembering of old stories is one thing, but I find committing them to written word is something else. When you write you ask things about these stories you hadn’t thought about before. Why had it been so important to me to give Bucky a funeral?

Then I recalled another pet that had died. I was 9 years old when my mare, Daisy, contracted an infectious blood disease, Leptospirosis, possibly carried to our farm by a rodent. Her carcass had to be quickly hauled away for lab tests. There was immediate concern for the other animals on our farm. And because it was a disease that was known to spread to humans, our family was alarmed when my 4-year-old brother became sick that week. (It turned out he was fine.) But in all the worry, no thought was given to the young girl who had lost her pony. Dust to dust, and all that. I understood now what I’d projected onto Laura and Bucky.

It’s never too late to find a meaningful ritual for the loss of something or someone you love. It can even be someone else’s chicken you think you are grieving.

Beauty before me / beauty behind me. . .

~K L Kurtz

*The photos of the Walnut Lane farm where Sarah, Kent, Erica and Laura used to live are courtesy of photojournalist, Kent Sweitzer.

**The photo of Karen, 8, was taken early in the morning while still in my PJs when I learned that my pony, Daisy (whose sorrel coat matched my auburn hair), had birthed her first colt, Pepper. The following summer, Daisy died.


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