Death never waits for the grave-digger. When the phone rings at an isolated valley farm in Oregon’s Coast Range, David Heidt drops his fieldwork and listens attentively, calmly soaking in directions and details from a trembling voice. He climbs behind the wheel of a massive white hearse, a 26,000-lb. flatbed Freightliner M2 lined with an assortment of heavy-duty gear, and sets off to collect another body for burial.
At first blush, Heidt, 53, is an undertaker, but in reality, he is a minister of equine comfort. Beneath the ground of Heidt’s canyon corridor ringed by an amphitheater of Douglas firs perched 700' above sea level, 2,500 meticulous horse burials testify to his care and service.
When Heidt began an equine burial business as a means of secondary income on his farm, it developed into one of the most unique agricultural services in the U.S. Pared down, a sidestream farming venture turned into a genuine ministry.
In 2003, when Heidt’s wife, Marta, lost her horse, she was confronted with the difficult task of burial and found few choices. Beyond rendering plants, expensive crematoria and landfills, the options for respectfully burying a 1,000-lb. animal were extremely limited. Already owning a backhoe and plenty of land, Heidt believed a horse burial business on his property would be successful. His land sits in a rain shadow and despite 80" to 100" of precipitation per year, the red sandstone soil is remarkably well-drained, a necessity for burial.
Even with pressing burial demand and an ideal location, Heidt had to pass through a regulatory minefield. The Omega Farms property is designated for exclusive farm use (EFU) by state law, and Heidt had to navigate Oregon’s strict land use codes. EFU regulations enumerate a specific list of permissible activities, and burying animals is not included.
Heidt spent $1,200 on a red tape process and wrote an extensive application explaining what he wanted to do and detailing why equine burials on his farm would not affect the environment. Eight months later, Lane County issued Heidt a special use permit to bury farm animals, with piggyback permits from the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Department of State Lands, Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Paperwork in place, Heidt gathered his gear. He initially bought an International Lodestar 1700 flatbed and a knuckle boom crane, and built a metal box to hold the horses. Startup costs were less than $10,000. Heidt later upgraded to the Freightliner and built another steel box lined with armor coating to stave off the rust effects of blood and urine. The flatbed carries a Polaris 700 ATV with a hauling sled.
Heidt retrieves horses from pastures, sheds and stalls, and each location requires a different extraction approach. He uses heavy nylon straps around each leg that connect to pulleys or winches, depending on the situation. The crane eventually picks up the horse and lays it into the flatbed’s steel box (6' wide, 10' long, 4' tall). After returning to Omega, the horse is unloaded with an excavator and placed in a pre-dug hole (10' deep, 8' long, 2.5' wide) on a hillside or in a pasture.
Depending on the owner’s request, he might place a blanket or halter in the grave before adding a sprinkling of hydrated lime and filling the hole with dirt. “The only thing I do to the horses is remove the shoes. Sometimes people want them as a keepsake,” he says.
Heidt maintains an open-door policy for owners to visit and keeps close track of each gravesite with a map and burial details on each horse (name, age, sex and cause of death). After 1,000 horse burials, Heidt tallied the average age of death at 23, cites colic as the most common cause of death.
Roughly 80% of Heidt’s customers are women. Deep bonds develop when a 15-year-old girl cares for a given horse every day, feeding it twice and interacting with it on a daily basis. Her own children grow up with the same horse, but when the kids leave the nest, the horse remains. She’s 50, the horse is 35, and the cords of companionship run to the core of both lives.
Heidt’s average price to retrieve and bury a horse is $300. He could charge significantly more, but he doesn’t. “I never want to gouge someone who is in grief,” he says. “These people are in a bind and need help. My goal is to never, never drive away having someone feel like I took advantage in a situation beyond their control.”
Chris Camp, veterinarian at Del Oeste Equine Hospital in Eugene, has two horses buried at Omega. “I’m not sure what we’d do without David. He understands the joy of life and sadness of death. It’s incredibly comforting to people to have their horses buried on David’s property. Nearly all of my clients want David to help when they face a final decision.”
Chris Wickliffe, veterinarian at the Cascadia Equine Veterinary Clinic in Corvallis, echoes Camp and says Heidt’s burial service is the finest he has encountered.
“David and Marta treat every horse like it is their own and every client with the kindness and respect that only comes from an understanding of their loss,” he says. “Their reputation is excellent in the area, and their services are invaluable.”
A 300-mile round trip is the extent of Heidt’s coverage. He doesn’t advertise the burial service and customers find him via veterinarian recommendations, word-of-mouth and a website (omega-farms.com). If Heidt advertised, he’d be on the road every day battling overwhelming time constraints, unable to provide individual attention he feels the service requires. “It’s just me doing the labor and Marta doing the paperwork,” he says.
Essentially, Heidt’s top dilemma is the lack of a full-time backup; he is always on duty. “When somebody calls in tears, I get there as soon as possible,” he says. “I try to treat people like I want to be treated.”
Heidt’s son, Nolan, 26, lives several miles away from Omega and helps when possible, retrieving smaller animals (goats and llamas) for burial that can be hauled with a pickup. He will also operate the heavy-duty burial equipment when necessary. Heidt’s daughter, Kiera, 20, sometimes rides shotgun on calls, handling paperwork and helping to get horses ready for hauling.
In addition to time constraints, Heidt admits the mental drain is often a heavy burden. “It’s hard to deal with the emotions of distraught people,” he says. “When I started this, I only considered dealing with the physical parts of death. I never figured on helping hurting people.”
“I’d advise anybody wanting to do this to remember it has drawbacks like anything. I actually encourage other people to do it because it’s truly needed everywhere,” he adds.
When the next call comes in to Omega, Heidt will hear the pained tones, turn away from his farm work, and head for the driver’s seat of the big white hearse. After all, farming is Heidt’s calling, but equine burial is his ministry.