How Dead Are the Dead?

In the great story of Funnybones we are confronted with an unheimlich narrative. Three characters go for a walk, play on the swings and go home – but there’s a problem: they are dead. Or are they? They are skeletons, certainly, but they have emotions, thought, language, relationships and in any case we are told explicitly that

On a dark dark hill there are was a dark dark town…
and in the dark dark house there was a dark dark staircase
and down the dark dark staircase there was a dark dark cellar
and in the dark dark cellar …
some skeletons lived.

The nub of my argument when I talked in the Brookes Hallowe’en Seminar was that depiction of “real death” is sometimes avoided or underplayed, although this is changing.  The comic misunderstanding of the skeleton in the park requires however at least some knowledge of what a skeleton is.  It comes back to the time (maybe 1993) I read Funnybones in nursery, with animal X-rays darkening the windows,  and as I finished  (“…some skeletons lived….THEY STILL DO”) the X-rays with perfect timing slid from their places and we all jumped.  Death as comic – but also as unnerving.

In Funnybones the dead are hardly that unnerving. A big skeleton, a little skeleton and a dog skeleton are identifiable as a strange sort of being: nocturnal, with a clear mission to frighten people, but not dead, really, and if undead then hardly George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.  But they have accidents, experience disappointment, and are warm towards one another. In the disjuncture the reader sees not only the scarily unfamiliar, but also the very famliar, a family unit out with the dog.  Their silliness reminds me always of the “gurning to camera” of the third skeleton in the C14th  De Lisle Psalter, Arundel MS 83, f. 127v, blogged about (with a great illustration of the grinning skeletons) by the British Library here. But while in “The Three Living and the Three Dead,” the skeletons meet the living princes to “admonish them to consider the transience of life,” in Funnybones we are with Gilbert and Sullivan finding that “we spectres are a jollier crew than you, perhaps, suppose.”

To understand what is going on here, we can refer to Gillian Rose’s visual methodology:

  • What is being shown? What are the components of the image? How are they arranged?
  • Is this a contradictory image?
  • What knowledges are being deployed?

This has come up before (it’s a shame that the new blog hasn’t preserved the images) and formed the backbone of the talk I gave a couple of years ago on the visual methodology of death. It is also pertinent in the run up to Hallowe’en: again something I have discussed before.   What is being shown is a family out for a walk – or three animate skeletons on a (rather unsuccessful) scaring spree.  In the same way there are complexities in the folk tale of the Teeny Tiny Woman who is compelled to give back the bone she finds in a graveyard. The sheeted figures who look on in horror as she pillages a bone for her supper (what on earth is that about?) require their bone back.   They are not, initially, menacing: they are being menaced by a cute little old lady. The comedy lies in the contradictory imagery, with the knowledges being deployed being rather complex.

The Teeny Tiny Woman, Funnybones; these will do for now. They draw on the flwing sheets of M R James and the earlier shrouded corpses. But of course children do know skeletons – museums have them; dinosaur fossils have them; we (and this is a bit of a shock: see this brief observation) have them. And in Funnybones we are invited to see with T S Eliot’s Webster  “the skull beneath the skin.”

There are other ways children see death, of course. Children’s Literature does well to represent a number of aspects:

  • In The Scar we deal, heartbreakingly, with real death – but the dead mother is unseen: her absence is the key act in the story.Dad said “She’s gone for ever.”I knew she hadn’t gone, she was dead and I would never see her again.’This story is not alone in looking, not at death, but at bereavement, just as the heart breaking Sad Book depicts the death of Michael Rosen’s son Eddie as a blank page, a gap in the history,  loss. He is drawn very much alive – and then not seen. A kinder view than the medieval skeletons? Or more shocking?
  • In Badger’s Parting Gifts, on a different tack we are invited to see the actual moment of Badger’s dying, going down into a long dark tunnel with no fear or pain.  Yet even here the dead Badger is not depicted.
  • In Death Duck and the Tulip (when I’ve talked about this the most divisive book choice), Duck recognises Death and they are friends – of a sort. Death here is close kin to the medieval Death the Reaper, or the three dead mentioned above, and maybe there is a message here of living life to the full and accepting our mortality that is not far from Arundel MS 83…

A conclusion to all this? No, there isn’t one.   Writing about death finds a number of ways to lighten the message – comedy; the sidestepping of the dead body (not always: Sydney Smith does so well (gently but clearly) in Footpath Flowers); using animals instead of humans – but increasingly these are not hard and fast conventions, and I predict we will see more imaginative ways to deal with letting in the dark and the dead into children’s literature.


Ahlberg A, Ahlberg J (2010) Funnybones (re-issue ed). London: Puffin

De Paola T (1985) Teeny Tiny. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Doonan, J (1993) Looking at Pictures in Picture Books. Stroud: Thimble

Erlbruch, W (2008) Duck, Death and the Tulip. Wellington: Gecko

Lawson, J and Smith S (2015) Footpath Flowers. London: Walker Books

Moundlic, C (2009) The Scar. London: Walker

Rose, G (2007) Visual Methodologies (2nd ed). London: Sage

Rosen, M (2004) The Sad Book. London: Walker Books

Varley S (1985) Badger’s Parting Gifts. London: Picture Lions


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