I suspect the bird had been dead for several days. Long enough, at least, for it to have attracted a steady stream of ants, staking their morbid claim to the little mound of flesh and feathers in the gutter. I’m not sure which neighborhood child found it first, but soon there was a stream of them as well, congregating around the most exciting thing to show up in the cul-de-sac for months. Ethan, my oldest and also the resident bird lover, leaned in to took a closer look. “A female robin,” he said with a note of regret.
With the kind of passion for a CAUSE that only a pack of children could produce, they began planning for the robin’s funeral. There was no question of leaving it in the gutter. The bird, who had by now acquired a name (Birdie) and the status of a fallen war hero, deserved a more dignified fate than that. Nature had thrown a child-sized tragedy into their path and only they could make it right. The grownups were too tall to have seen the bird lying there, too busy to do anything about it, and too grownup to care.
The kids formed an ad-hoc committee, made the arrangements and collected the supplies, slowed down only by periodic snack breaks and heated debates over the various earth-shatteringly important details. Ethan carefully scooped the robin up with a shovel, ceremoniously slid her body in a coffin (an empty potato salad tub) and sealed it tightly with a generous wrapping of masking tape.
Had Ethan’s older friends been around, I’m guessing he may have felt too self-conscious to participate – the need for “coolness” winning out over his genuine sense of sympathy for the bird and the excitement of the moment. But in the eyes of his younger brothers and their friends, he was the leader, the mission commander, and the holder of the answers and the shovel. He conducted the funeral ceremony where each child took turns offering a few dramatic words in honor of the dear departed. I offered to walk down with them to an open field where they could bury the coffin.
We formed a solemn procession: kids with shovels, a few on bikes, the hearse (a red Radio-Flyer edition) and one mom, with baby in stroller, pulling up the rear. Later, when I told the story to my neighbor, I had a hard time describing the scene. Was it funny? Was it sad? Were my emotions just stirred up from remembering similar missions of mercy from my own childhood? How is it that as I watched them dig the hole and put the bird to rest I was both amused by the absurd drama of it all and envious at the same time? “It’s too bad you didn’t have your camera” said my neighbor. “You could have videotaped the whole thing.”
I’m glad I didn’t have my camera. I think for good reason people don’t typically film funerals and interment ceremonies – something about reverence for the dead and respect for the living. But I also know that recording the scene would have spoiled it. It touched me because it was real, spontaneous, unaffected. Had I pulled out the camera, the kids would have been performing, whether they knew it or not. For the sake of authentication, the moment would have lost all authenticity. Did you know that in order to paint, describe and catalog, in detail, the distinguishing characteristics of the birds of North America, John James Audubon had to shoot them first? One of his biographers wrote: "The rarer the bird, the more eagerly he pursued it, never apparently worrying that by killing it he might hasten the extinction of its kind." As the only adult guest at a burial for a dead bird, I learned a lesson that Audubon never understood: sometimes you should let the rare ones fly.