Saturday, August 28, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

This summer my family and I took a quick and unexpected vacation. My daughter had a day or two left of a rental house near the shore in Rhode Island and invited her father and me to join her for a night midweek, so we did. Since we’re rarely this spontaneous, it was both a surprise and a treat. We spent a pleasant afternoon strolling along all but empty beaches, watching people fishing, admiring the nearby lighthouse and shopping for typical beach-town souvenirs. But one of the things that excited me most was finding dead things.

Okay, I’m weird. But I've always been a naturalist at heart, and I love seeing things I've never seen before. The inside of a dead bird's head may not be the first thing that occurs to most people, but when I found a seagull skull, I fascinated. I even took a picture.

And I didn't stop there. At a different beach (to be accurate, the parking lot near the beach), I discovered a desiccated sting ray and was thrilled (and took more pictures). I had only just discovered that there were sting rays in that part of the world, and, presto, there was a large and perfectly preserved specimen that I could study to my heart's content. I thought it was beautifulBelegant, exotic, alien. (I thought it would make a charming addition to the decor surrounding my desk, but my daughter would not let me bring it home.)

Actually I’ve been doing this for years. I have a picture of a huge jellyfish I found washed up on a beach in New Jersey years ago (it was at least a foot across). When my husband and I visited Australia several years ago, I had a marvelous time documenting dead animals: a cockatoo in a tree, a wombat, even an entire cow skeleton. Lest you think I'm totally bonkers, I also took pictures of as many living creatures as I could, but they often move fast and/or keep their distance, so pictures of them can be disappointing. The dead ones hold still.

When I was eight, a friend and I created our own animal graveyard. Some people have healthy hobbies like sports; we instead collected road kill and conducted funerals. No, we did not kill anything, nor were our pets included. We relied on serendipity to provide us with our departed. Once we were very happy to discover four mice that had apparently fallen victim to the same car in a driveway. A quadruple funeral!

In my own defense, I should add that I've talked to several other people who did the same thing when they were young. Maybe there’s something compelling to children about big serious issues like death, especially when they’re often sheltered from the reality. When I was holding those mock funerals, I had never been to one. I didn't see a dead person until I was well into my twenties (and it was an acquaintance, not someone I knew well); I didn't attend a funeral until my grandmother's, and she lived to be 94.

Now I write mysteries, in most of which my protagonist is trying to identify a killer and to bring that person to justice. That is the core of the traditional or cozy mystery: justice is done. Those who kill others maliciously must be identified and stopped. No one should suffer an untimely death, and maybe writing about it in some way rights a wrong.


Sandra Parshall said...

I think children have a hard time understanding death, and they try to make sense of it in any way they can. But we don't grasp the finality of it until we're older. (I still have trouble grasping the finality of it, to tell you the truth.) I have never understood how one person can kill another, end his or her life, and I think I write mysteries in an effort to understand.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, you're not alone. We found a gull skull on the beach this summer too. My husband took it home, saying he planned to paint it gold and mount it. Last week I opened a roll of yellow tissue paper that he'd left lying on the dining room table for weeks. Guess what it was. :)

Pauline Alldred said...

I was more aware of death at an early age but my siblings and I still conducted animal funerals on a regular basis. One whole corner of the back yard was a cemetery. I think it's easier to accept death than being buried underground.

Mare said...

I find a certain logic in your animal funerals. I think I'd be not quite as squeamish as I am today if I had done something like that when I was younger.

Mare said...

I find a certain logic in your animal funerals. I think I'd be not quite as squeamish as I am today if I had done something like that when I was younger.

Julia Buckley said...

My brother has a whole shelf in his garage that is full of things in jars. His wife thinks he's a lunatic, but he uses the various dead creatures to teach his kids science.

Sheila Connolly said...

I'm so glad I'm not alone! I could have added, children also perform mock weddings, long before they've actually been to one.

Sometimes I think we've sanitized life too much for our children (save on television, where you can see just about anything). A century or more ago, most people in the country worked on farms, so everyone saw everything--mating, birth, death, accidents, illness (physical and mental). Now we're quick to shuttle people off to a hospital, or at least shut the doors. My daughter has never even seen kittens being born.

Are we doing them any favors?

Annette Blair said...

Sheila, I held funerals myself as a kid, but mostly for my dolls who often departed this life at the hands of a toddler sibling. Now that I think about it, I'll have to question her. Were they accidents? Or murder?

Oh, Elizabeth, mounting a gull skull? Decorating with bones. Hmm.

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