Inner Work

Rites of Death: Requiem for a Squirrel

Content warning—description of animal death

For today’s #InnerWork Wednesday, I wanted to share the ritual I enacted after witnessing a violent squirrel death. This is the second dead animal I’ve come across in the last month; I also found a robin outside of my door which had likely passed from West Nile virus. Just as I try to drastically reduce my consumption of animal products, my access to their suffering has increased.

Witnessing Wildness

As I walked with my dog, I hear a ruckus in a neighbor’s tree. My pup and I stopped to see what was causing all the commotion. Unexpectedly, three squirrels came hurdling at least ten feet from a nest in the tree and plopped on the ground. One landed with a smacking sound. My brain tried to sanitize what I’d just seen by telling me it was like a mother bird pushing her offspring out of the nest, even as I stood there covering my mouth with my hand, eyes bugging out. A single squirrel that remained in the tree squawked in victory.

I kept walking, believing everything was alright. As I passed the house on my way back, two neighbors came out, staring at the tree. I went over and explained what I’d seen. One of the men remarked that a squirrel, the one that landed with a thud, seemed like it might be dead. Before I could react, the other man started kicking and stomping on it. He kicked it into the bush where I could now see it. Its body laid there, still and silent. I felt sickened to my core and helpless. I was confused by the ambiguity of his actions—unsure if he was trying to “put it out of its misery” or if it was merely stunned and could have recovered. I left the scene but what I’d observed bothered me the rest of the day.

Words of Mourning

I decided to hold a small ritual to mourn the squirrel. Its manner of death was so abrupt and violent that I intuited on a visceral level the fear people have of ghosts and spirits who linger, unable to move on to their next destination. I’ve always conceptualized funerals as events designed to help the living grieve, but now I’m not so certain that they are the only ones in attendance. I burned some palo santo, lit a candle, and recited the following chant:

May Earth cradle.

May Air free.

May Fire guide.

May Water heal.

May your essence, emanating from Source, spiral its home in the cosmic web.

I also lit a candle outdoors the next day to finalize my actions. It flickered on and off like a heartbeat. Each time I thought it had been blown out by the wind, its flame started anew.

When I walked by the place of passing, the squirrel was gone.That is, its body had been removed or resurrected; I didn’t have a strong sense of its spirit either, but the tree, now empty, felt closed-in and shadowed to me.

We pass every day near places where violence has occurred, often on a much grander scale than what I saw. We can do all we are able to stop these types of events. When they do happen, how do we integrate them into our experience? How do we heal them and ourselves of our participation in them? How do we remember and honor those who have passed?