Robert was a squirrel. He had a good life. You would’ve liked him. My dog and I found him lying dead in the street while on a walk. He was the victim of a hit and run.
I first noticed the squirrel while my dog was busy doing her business in the neighbor’s yard. I wore a plastic dog-doody-bag on my hand.
One of the neighbor kids saw the squirrel, too. The girl’s name is Erin. Erin started crying. Her brother, Tyler, came to see what was wrong.
“Don’t cry,” I said. “It probably didn’t even feel anything before it died.”
“We HAVE to have a funeral,” Erin told her brother.
“What?” said her brother. “A funeral for a squirrel?”
“He had a name,” the little girl said. “His name was Robert.”
That’s when my dog started licking Robert’s—how do I put this?—remains. Erin shrieked. I tugged my dog’s leash and apologized.
“Will you help us?” said Erin. “With the funeral?”
I had better things to do, of course. A serious writer doesn’t just sit around eating tuna salad and watching baseball all day. Occasionally, he watches basketball.
I didn’t have time to conduct a homegoing service for a rodent. I explained this.
But the kids didn’t seem to understand. And I cannot say no to kids.
So I went home, and in a few minutes, I returned wearing another doody-baggy over my hand. I used old barbecue tongs to position Robert in a shoebox.
Four children were part of the procession. We all marched from Robert’s skidmark to Erin’s backyard.
Erin’s big sister, Kristen, stood on the porch, texting her friends about what dorks her siblings were. And about what an even bigger schmo the writer down the street was.
I felt ridiculous, but not too bad. Because when I was a boy, I once threw a wedding for two hamsters, Fred and Ginger, complete with mailed invitations. Only two of my friends RSVP’d.
And once, when my cat Rusty died, a retired preacher who lived a few houses down conducted the funeral, per my request. I’ll never forget that old man. His name was Brother Tony.
Brother Tony showed up wearing a necktie and everything. And after the service I asked Brother Tony if he thought Rusty went to Heaven.
He said, “No son, I don’t think. I know.”
I haven’t thought about Brother Tony in years.
So I did a funeral for a squirrel. As it happened, only a few months earlier, I had been ordained by the state of Alabama, to officiate my buddy’s backyard wedding in Andalusia. The color scheme was camouflage and lilac.
I did the whole ordination online. It cost fifty bucks and I got a complimentary insulated coffee mug . So legally speaking, everything was in order.
The funeral was short. I reflected on the reverence of life, and loss, and the many reasons why a squirrel is beautiful.
I love squirrels. A squirrel is free. He runs in treetops. He leaps from branches without worry. He doesn’t fret about taxes, or bills. He doesn’t overthink tomorrow. We could learn a lot from squirrels.
A girl named China attended, she wore a lace shirt. Her plus-one was Bailey. Bailey wore pants. His little brother, Arnold, was there.
I made the final prayer a good one.
“Dear God,” I began. “Robert was a good creature, and an important member of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and you knew his name…”
I was laying it on a little thick, but I kept thinking about what Brother Tony might have done.
Erin started crying. And I mean for-real crying. Her sister had to console her. I was starting to feel badly for making a little girl sob.
We buried Robert beneath a pine tree. The kids took turns saying nice things about him.
“He had a really fun life,” said Erin.
“Yeah,” added China. “He was super cool.”
“And he was fast,” said Bailey.
“Yeah,” said Arnold.
I tried to lighten the mood with some uplifting remarks about the Circle of Life, but you can’t lighten up a funeral.
Before we closed, China said, “Shouldn’t we sing something?”
Everyone agreed. The kids didn’t know any actual hymns. In fact, they didn’t know anything except songs from the hit British television series Peppa Pig.
So China sang “The Bing Bong Song” at a slow tempo. It wasn’t exactly “Amazing Grace,” but it had a catchy chorus.
Afterward, I walked home. I felt sorry that the kids were so sad, and I was hoping their grief wouldn’t last too long. The sincerity of children is a precious thing.
I heard footsteps behind me.
It was Erin. She said, “Mister Sean? Do you think Robert went to Heaven?”
And I was five years old all over again, not a second older.
“No, Erin,” I said. “I don’t think. I know.”