Come and Dig the Graves

For Zooey


Back before I knew better, I used to believe it was very important to make distinctions when it came to the farming of non-human animals. Small vs. large. Pasture vs. confinement. Family vs. corporate. Barnyard vs. factory. Humane vs. cruel.

These are not superficially nonsensical lines to draw, admittedly. Not only does a backyard appear almost existentially in contrast to a CAFO, but our cultural narrative about farmers and farming strives to paint pictures of happy animals being loved on by wise, paternalistic farmers.

It’s good propaganda.

Over six years ago, two hens changed my life. We fell in love with them, started a sanctuary for them, launched a movement inspired by them. In the ensuing years, I’ve been on numerous farms, be they backyards or large “family” operations, and I’ve seen. I’ve listened.

I’ve seen and heard things, atrocious and offensive things, but more importantly I’ve cared for the unwanted individuals who are born on or brought to these farms every single day—the unwanted, the injured, the ill, the disabled, the less-than-useful…

It now makes no sense to me to draw lines between sizes, setups, or methods of farming animals. No matter where, things always ends badly for the animals.

If I seem to be making an argument from worst cases, in part I am. Usually what we hear about these sorts of farms are only best cases—the pleasing aesthetics of families tending to animals—so it’s important to understand the truth.

Besides that, I deal largely in these worst cases. Hundreds of them over the years. And even the less-than-worst cases have left deep emotional scars.

As long as these farms exist, as long as any farms exist, animals will be born and used and killed, and there will be those who get a chance to live and die with some dignity—not because of farmers, but despite them.

Death needs more attention than we give it. We need to ask, did an animal die by violence and for human benefit? If so, the loveliness of their prior life is revealed to be a farce. It’s a lie, a joke that the animals were never in on. If animals die by violence, or neglect, or apathy, or parsimony, as part of a system that benefits humans, if the entire point of that system was to prepare them for and bring them to unnecessary death, then how can we evaluate based only on how supposedly happy their life was? Death needs to impact our understanding of life as much as life does death—perhaps more so in the case of animals raised primarily for our consumption…


Before this sanctuary work I had minimal exposure to death. Emotional entanglement, with human animals and non-human animals, was something I kept away from.

Now, death has become far too familiar.

I’ve buried babies. I’ve buried old-timers who lived 3, 4, 5 times longer than they were expected to. I’ve buried those who died suddenly and without warning, and those who battled chronic illnesses until they could not fight any longer.

If you wish to argue that small farms—like your buddy outside of town or your neighbor or maybe you—that the small farms are the ones doing right by animals, come and dig the graves with me.

Pick up the shovel.

Dig a hole, in this infernal red Carolina clay, until it’s deep and wide and long enough. Scrape the sides, pry out the rocks, break the roots.


Place in the body, noticing how death robs these individuals of life, while robbing your memory of someone you’ve gotten to know and grown attached to, as they stiffen and begin to decompose.

Scoop the soil, and toss it in, over and over and over, until they disappear.

Then plant a tree, a bush, a flowering plant, to live as a memento to them as they become soil.

Come and dig the graves with me.

Will you sit through the surgeries with me, go to the vet appointments with me, give medications, monitor and fret and attend through the death watches with me…?

Come and dig the graves with me, over and over, year after year, and speak with me of them in tribute of who they were and how terrible it is for them to be gone.

When your body hurts, and you feel the futility of grief so much that it becomes nearly impossible to process…tell me then why none of this matters.

Come and dig the graves with me and tell me this is all worth it: An egg. A glass of milk. A wheel of cheese. A drumstick or pork chop or burger or steak…

Tell me these things as you wipe the soil and the sweat from your hands, as you water the memorial tree, and help me understand how the individual we’ve buried forever together deserved to be part of this.

And tell me how you’ll gladly come to dig the next graves with me, too.


Published by

Justin Van Kleeck

I am a vegan (since 1999), a curious skeptic, a bookworm, a nature lover, and your garden-variety neurotic. My wrestling with chaos manifests as writing and, with my wife, tending our friends the plants and spending quality time with our rescued furry kids. I am fun at parties (because I am never there) and so unique that I am easy to forget. So take that, modernity.

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