Death is rarely a popular conversation topic for polite society, at least not in Western society. We don’t even like to utter the word death, preferring instead kinder, gentler euphemisms like passing away, going to a better place and moving on. The general societal consensus seems to be that by denying the existence of death and removing it from our vocabulary and our consciousness we can somehow prevent death from occurring – like Tinkerbell, death ceases to exist if we stop believing in it.
Children, in particular, must be sheltered from unpleasant and unsavory realities like death. Their innocent, malleable brains cannot handle difficult subject matter, and being easily frightened and emotionally scarred, it is the duty of responsible adults to ensure that potentially upsetting content be kept from children at all costs.
Or so the traditional wisdom goes.
Children, by and large, do not naturally possess the societal filters that adults so often cling to so desperately. Naturally curious, death, like those other cultural taboos like sex and the human body, initially appears just another subject to be questioned, explored and discussed, until grown ups convince them otherwise.
The Swedes prove once again that they are not only masters of flat-packed furniture but can also be almost breathtakingly progressive when it comes to children’s literature. In All the Dear Little Animals, death is unflinchingly referred to again, and again, and again. The dear little animals in question do not pass away, or go to sleep, or move on to a better place. They die, sometimes in quite uncomfortable ways. They die in their sleep, they die of old age, they die after being hit by cars or flying into windows. They die, die, die.
Three little children, bored one day, decide to start an animal funeral business. They offer complete burial services for dead animals, digging graves, writing eulogies and creating little tombstones. The children pick up the dead bodies, hold them in their hands, examine them and then bury them. They talk about death, wonder about, and reflect on it with childlike honesty. And then, just like that, they move on to the next activity, the next question, the next idea.
All the Dear Little Animals is morbid, somewhat macabre, and completely realistic. Children are curious about death. Some are afraid of it, or are unsure what it means. They react to death in different ways. This is natural, healthy and real. As much as it might make us uncomfortable to think about or talk about, death is a reality for all living things, and children will undoubtedly experience it at some point, whether through the death of a pet, the discovery of a dead raccoon on the side of the road, or heaven forbid the death of a family member or friend. Denying the existence of death doesn’t make it go away – it only makes it a taboo subject, something that children might feel guilty wondering about or talking about. Like sex or the human body, death is a natural part of life – we may not know or agree on what happens afterwards, but there’s no denying that it comes to us all in the end, and talking about feelings, doubts, questions, concerns or fears is a natural part of healthy growth and development.
Oh you Swedes.