Young Thoughts on Death

[A short essay, written by Sibyl Mary (Croly) (Hanchett) Schneller, at age 74 (1962). The original is in the possession of Marie Gale, her grandaughter.]

One of the necessary cruelties of farm life was the poisoning of the rabbits and squirrels. Prince and my father conducted an endless war on these pests, who were harmful, not only on account of what they ate but because they would foul the raisins spread on trays to dry in the sun, by leaving what our Irish neighbor called “coffee.” If given a choice of deaths the small animals would probably have preferred Prince’s method, which was at least natural and swift, or my father’s shotgun. But these were not enough, and a poison was used, called Paris Green1

Children were warned against it, and they took the warnings so seriously that a legend was current among my schoolmates that a woman had died biting a green thread. Any artificial thing that was green might prove fatal. We never saw any green candy in those days. Even candy hearts, with their arch legends such as OH YOU KID, or MY SWEET were restricted to red, pink, white, yellow, and lavender.

One day I came out of a brown study2 with the question, “If I ate enough Paris Green would I go to Heaven?”

My mother was interested. “Why?” she asked. “Do you want to go to heaven and leave papa and me?”

“Well,” I argued. “Heaven is a beautiful place and grandma and grandpa are there. They would take care of me.”

Then my mother told me something I never forgot. “You have to have an invitation to get to heaven. If you tried to go in without being invited you might have to stay outside alone in the dark.”

I wonder how many suicides would be prevented by such indoctrination?

Charley Hunt was the son, reputedly illegitimate, of a woman who lived in a tumbledown shanty not far from our place. They were very poor, but Charley managed to get a horse that matched the rest of their establishment, and a cart that matched the horse. While the animal was able to drag the cart, Charley cut quite a dash in certain quarters. He even got a girl into trouble and she died. The big girls in school discussed it in whispers. They said ”and they buried her face down.” Overhearing them, I asked why. But they said “Hush, don’t talk about it.” So this was filed under “mysteries” to be explored when I grow up.

This death had little impression on me, being only hearsay. But one morning when we came to school it was a shock to se Charley’s old horse, who had been turned out to browse by the roadsides, stretched out dead in the middle of the playground. This was my first sight of death, stark and ugly. Horses, as I knew them were fat and healthy, and as personal to me as human beings. There seem no grown-up words to describe the pity and terror of that experience.

The next time I saw death was when Annie and Tena Miller’s mother died and I was taken to the funeral. The corpse lay in a black coffin in a small room of their parlor. We all filed around to view the remains. I did not want to go, but somehow I knew that if I didn’t look at her I would imagine worse, so I walked in my turn. There was no music, no flowers, none of the cosmetic treatment of a modern funeral. Just the sobbing girls and the bony yellow face and the work-worn hands of the dead woman. As I walked past the coffin I thought I heard a little noise inside it, and I was almost fainting when I escaped. Afterward I told my mother about the little noise, a sort of soft groan. She said matter-of-factly that sometimes a little air would come out of a dead body. It was nothing to be afraid of. That didn’t help at all.

The town cemetery was the other side of town from us and we did not have to pass it, but when we went to Auburn or Newcastle there was a cemetery on the route. I used to beg my mother to go another way, but it was miles around and I never succeeded. The most she would do was to urge Dottie to a trot as we passed the awful place. I held my breath. Cemeteries, corpses, and death in general were in the list of things I had to go over every night before I went to sleep to forbid myself from dreaming about them.
Another thing was leprosy. When I was about eight years old, the Examiner Sunday Supplement came out with a graphic description of the inhabitants of Molokai. For many years I was afflicted with an obsession about leprosy. This went so deep that I could not even mention it to anyone. I would not touch the shelf of the bookcase that held a copy of The Vision of Sir Launfal. I was even afraid to touch a Bible. When I hear of “mentally disturbed” children I wonder what they are burying in their tormented minds.

One of my father’s funniest stories had to do with a funeral. He was a Mason and had to attend a Masonic funeral in town. He curried Old Tom whose regular pace was a good steady three miles an hour. Dottie was no horse to take to a funeral. If a train happened to pass within half a mile, she would walk on her hind legs. We usually tried to avoid train time when we did town errands, but if Dottie had to stand hitched when a train went by she would make up for it as soon as the halter was loosened. The grocery clerk would put the groceries in the buggy, wait until my mother got hold of the reins, unsnap the halter and throw it after us – sometimes he missed. So my father curried Old Tom, washed the buggy, put on his starched shirt and good black suit, and set off in plenty of time. When he came back, my mother asked him how the funeral went. To our surprise he burst into laughter. It seems one of the Black Minorca hens had decided to make a nest in the “boot” of the buggy (like the trunk of a car) which had a top that closed, and somehow she got shut in there and went to the funeral. The mourners and carriages were lined up waiting to go to the grave and my father was asked to take some of the flowers. So he opened the boot and the hen flew out with a loud squawk. “I tell you, I was embarrassed,” said my father, choking with laughter, but he added as soon as he could manage it, “If you have to take a hen to a funeral, it ought to be a black hen.

Now that I am seventy-four years old, hardly any year passes that does not bring me news of the death of an old friend. I have probably been present at fewer deathbeds than most of my generation. Actually the only two were my mother and my little baby. Alfred died of polio at three months old. He just went to sleep. My mother died at sixty-four when I was twenty. She opened her eyes and seemed to be looking at one spot and then another in the room. She said “Mother?” then “Pa?” Then her body grew tense and she seemed to struggle a little. “They’re calling me, but I can’t come. Wait a minute – Wait a minute – “ Then she left us.

All the others, my father, brother, sister, Aunt Nellie, my son Billy, and my dear granddaughter Germaine, died away from my presence. My father was eighty-five when he died in the Masonic Home. He outlived my mother by fifteen years, a peaceful kindly old gentleman, his native vigor and hot temper tamed by dependence. He lived to enjoy some of his grandchildren.

I have outgrown many things, including the horror of death that plagued my childhood. If it is the end, that is alright with me. If it is not, as most of the people I admire and hope, I shall hope to be received by friendly faces, if not by Prince and Barney. And if I had my choice I should hope to go while there are still some who will miss me.


  1. Paris Green Highly toxic emerald-green crystalline powder made from mixing copper and arsenic. Used as a rodenticide and insecticide. In late 1800’s it was used to create the highly coveted – and highly toxic – emerald green color of expensive fabrics and wall coverings.
  2. brown study. noun. The condition of being so lost in solitary thought as to be unaware of one’s surroundings: absent-mindedness, daydreaming, trance.

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