Jessica Bradford knows five people who have been killed. It could happen to her, she says, so she has told her family that if she should get shot before her sixth-grade prom, she wants to be buried in her prom dress.

Jessica is 11 years old. She has known since she was in fifth grade what she wanted to wear at her funeral. "I think my prom dress is going to be the prettiest dress of all," Jessica said. "When I die, I want to be dressy for my family."

In the last five years, 224 children younger than 18 have been killed in the District either as targets of shootings or as bystanders. The carnage has been taken in by children who live close to the gunfire, such as Jessica, and by some children removed from it.

As they've mastered Nintendo, double Dutch and long division, some children have sized up their surroundings and concluded that death is close at hand. So, like Jessica, they have begun planning their funerals.

According to interviews with about 35 youths and adults who work with them, children as young as 10 have told friends how they want to be buried, what they want to wear and what songs they want played at their funerals. Some young people dictate what they want their mourners to wear and say they want their funeral floral arrangements to spell out the names of their favorite brands of clothing.

Jessica, a sixth-grader at Payne Elementary School and a cheerleader at the Boys and Girls Club across the street from her home near 17th Street and Massachusetts Avenue SE, has heard gunfire as she walked to the grocery store. She has seen a body on her playground.

"Most 11-year-olds think about their funerals all the time," Jessica said, as she sat in the her living room with her mother and aunt. "Most of my friends who are 11 live around violence. When I die, I hope it won't be from violence. I don't want to get shot."

Community activists, social workers and psychologists who have studied the effects on young people of living amid violence say children who plan their own funerals are showing that they do not expect to live long.

"It's strange to hear young kids talking about dying, but that goes along with the times," said Sharon Brooks, 32, an instructor at the Boys and Girls Club. "For them to come tell you someone was murdered the night before is just like regular conversation."

William W. Johnson, a former police officer who works with youths in the District, said death is almost a daily reality for some.

"It's happening around them. . . . These kids come home to dope, guns and killing. We're living in a war zone," Johnson said. "They actually believe they are not going to be around. If you look at the circumstances and the facts, they have enough to think that way."

According to the D.C. Department of Human Services, 50.8 percent of young people 15 to 24 years old who died in the city during the last decade were victims of homicide. A recent national report on violence and youth by the American Psychological Association said teenagers are 2 1/2 times as likely to be victims of violent crimes as people over 20.

Douglas Marlowe, a psychologist at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia, said children often become fascinated with death during adolescence. Usually, he said, young people romanticize death or read literature about death in an effort to gain control over dying.

But Marlowe said planning a funeral is "extremely fatalistic" and is not a normal part of adolescent development. "Once they start planning their own funerals, they have given up. They are not trying to conquer death anymore," he said. "They are now turning themselves over."

Jessica's mother and aunt said they were not surprised when the 11-year-old started talking about her funeral because she has known so many people who have died.

A year ago, the brother of former police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr., Theodore, was killed three blocks from Jessica's house. About a month later, Jessica's 21-year-old cousin, Stanley Richard Hunter Jr., was killed. Two weeks after that, Hunter's 18-year-old friend was slain in a drive-by shooting. Then an elderly woman who lived three doors away from Jessica was gunned down in her house because she had witnessed a slaying and was to testify in the case.

With so much violence around her, Jessica's aunt, Wilma Hunter, says she understands the girl's wish to be buried in her prom dress.

"When I was growing up, we always expected to live," Hunter said. "Now it's almost like they really can't be sure they will live to be an adult when they see people dying around them."

Hunter works with mentally retarded children at a center in Montgomery County. She has helped rear Jessica and her sisters. She said her nieces have awakened at night crying because they have dreams and visions about funerals.

Rona Fields, a psychologist who has studied children living in war zones in Northern Ireland, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Beirut and Southeast Asia and in violent U.S. cities, said she sees similarities in the way children react to violence.

Fields said she has seen children in Palestinian camps acting out burials, literally digging their own graves and lying in the holes.

"The children who dig their own grave and put themselves in it are not necessarily pathological; they are children whose experience of the world is glorification of the victim and the hero," Fields said.

Young people here who plan their funerals often fall into two groups, according to adults who work with them. There are "good kids" who have seen many of their friends die violently, and there are those who are involved in selling drugs and think someone may be after them.

Howard Reed, 15, said he doesn't sell drugs and knows of no one who is after him, but still he is not sure whether he will live. He said he has escaped bullets at nightclubs and is wary of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"Things just go wrong in this world," he said. "If people don't like you or they don't like the way you walk or talk, they are going to try to take care of it."

Howard, a ninth-grader at Hine Junior High School, has told friends that if he should die soon, he wants his funeral to be "different than everybody else's."

"I don't want my hands like this," he said, folding them across his chest. "I want to be buried with peace signs. And I don't want my funeral to be in a church. I want it at Rollins Funeral Home, and I want to be buried at Harmony {Memorial Park} . I want to wear sweats and tennis shoes. I don't want to be buried in a suit."

Howard's mother said she wants her son to be a lawyer when he grows up. But she said it also is necessary to plan for early death. She has talked with her children about the possibility. "I've told them life is nothing to be played with," said Howard's mother, who did not want her name used. "Bullets don't have any names. You can be anywhere and get hit by a bullet."

Alicia Brown, 14, an eighth-grader at Eliot Junior High, lives near C and 17th streets SE, where her mother says parents are afraid for their children to go to school.

Alicia, who wants to be a lawyer, said, "I pray to God, I hope I make it through this day. It seems like people are just killing without thinking.

"One friend got killed, and he was just riding a bike. I figured the bullet could have hit me. Sometimes, I picture my funeral. Because when I go to a friend's funeral, I picture myself. Things come in my mind. It could be me laying there."

"When her friends do die, I try to talk to her about it," said Alicia's mother, Isha Williams, 30, whose family owns a photography studio. "For a young mind, they are handling death as casually as going to a movie now. For them, it's an everyday thing."

During Ericca Benton's senior year at McKinley High School, four classmates were fatally shot. She started to think that she wasn't going to make it, so she sat down one day and began planning her funeral.

"On the top of the page, I wrote my name a couple of times because I like to write my name," said Benton, now a 21-year-old senior at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. "Then I wrote the songs I want sung. Then I wanted a tape of me talking, telling everybody I'm all right. I'm real dramatic, you know. But I was serious. Then I wrote who I want to talk. . . . And I told my mother what to wear."

She then sealed the envelope and gave it to her mother.

Some youths say they have rearranged their lives to avoid death. "You can't go to a club; it's like a death trap," said Raymond Rouse, 17, who lives near Ninth and O streets NW. "You are liable to get hit by a bullet or something. Rich kids don't have to think about this. They keep talking about stress. They haven't seen stress until they live out here."

Rouse and two friends, Cornelius Edmonds, 18, and Chris Thomas, 17, grew up in a neighborhood where there are frequent shootings. They said they think about death because they see it so often. They knew Mustaffi "Lucky" Miller, a 16-year-old who was fatally shot two weeks ago. They knew Leonard "Stinkaman" Cole III, also 16, who was killed in 1991 after a dispute with a rival gang.

Survival, they say, is a skill they have had to learn. They are careful about offending, because "if you did something to somebody, somebody is going to get a 'get-back' {retaliation}," Edmonds said.

The three say they think about death and accept it. "If it's your time, it's your time," Edmonds said. "If somebody is looking for me, I can't get nervous. If I know somebody is trying to get me, I'm going to get them first."

Rouse, who like many young people seems to believe he is invincible, said: "I ain't going to worry about it. If it catches me it catches me."

Thomas said he doesn't believe he's going to die, "because I'm just not going to let anybody kill me."

They have dreams about getting out of the neighborhood, marriage and manhood.

Edmonds, who said he just got out of jail for doing something "stupid," wants to be a computer engineer. His friends laughed at him because he doesn't have a computer.

Rouse wants to move to Virginia and sell real estate. Thomas wants to get a job that makes money. "If I had some money, I would be gone," he said. "I would go down to Florida."

Rouse looked at Thomas curiously. "They kill people down there," he said. "You ain't seen the news?"

Their dreams are cut short by not knowing how long they will survive the neighborhood. "I've said when it happens to me," Edmonds said, "I want them to sing at my funeral, you know, that new song on the radio, 'This Is to My Homeys.' "

The song is actually titled "Gangsta Lean." It is a ballad by a group caled DRS about young men dying. It was the most-requested song recently at WPGC-FM radio. The video version shows a boy's body propped up in a coffin in the "gangsta lean."

Many of the young people interviewed said they can relate to the song's lyrics:

"This song is dedicated to my homeys in that gangsta lean. Why'd you have to go so soon? It seems like yesterday we were hangin' 'round the hood. Now I'm going to keep your memory alive like a homey should."

Although many teenagers say they fear dying, death has become honored in some communities, said David Arnett, 32, the manhood training coordinator at Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast Washington.

"Just as the lives some of the youngsters lead have been glorified, those who die in that life have been glorified as well," Arnett said.

Arnett said that when he hears his students talking about their funerals, he interrupts quickly.

"I try to interject, 'You know how you want to die. How do you want to live?' " Arnett said. "I say, 'Would you consider planning your life as well as you plan your death?' "