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20 Apr 2014
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Bearing Up

Bryan Gallagher unexpectedly finds himself pressed into service at a funeral....

Bryan Gallagher
Bryan Gallagher

I was at a funeral recently and got an unexpected call-up to be one of the chief participants. The deceased had been a big, heavy-set woman and when the time came to carry the coffin out of the chapel one of the men who stepped forward was immediately pulled back by his wife.“You’re not carrying that weight,” she hissed, “you have a heart condition".

The undertaker looked round, caught my eye and I was pressed into service. It’s always awkward for a tall man to carry a coffin, because most of the weight rests on your shoulder, and so it was this time. That coffin dug into my shoulder, so that I almost staggered, but I gritted my teeth and reached the door safely.

Now it was a strange chapel to me and I didn’t realise that there was a step outside. Just as I came to it, and my foot unexpectedly stepped into mid-air, the bell clanged out above my head. The coffin jumped a foot and a half off my shoulder, and I was in a total state of nerves as we pushed it into the hearse.

The undertaker whispered to me, “Will you take one of the straps at the graveside" meaning would I help to lower the coffin into the grave. There’s none of these old boys fit to do it, he said. And I followed behind the hearse determined to do everything correctly.

I wasn’t helped by the fact that also at the funeral was a man I hadn’t seen for years, a man noted for his witty remarks. “I seen you, underneath that coffin” he said. “God you’re lookin’ shockin’ well”. “I don’t know about that” I said as we walked along. “Look at the colour of my hair - it's gone grey.” “Never mind,” he said, “You know, a grey ass is as good as a black ass any day of the week. Ha! Ha! Good luck with the lifting, anyway” he said. “Boys, she was one big woman”, he added meaningfully, as he left me.

When we got to the graveyard we rested the coffin on two planks over the open grave. At the given time, the undertaker nodded to me and I and three other men took hold of the straps. Knowing the weight I would have to lift, and determined not to let it fall, I wrapped the strap around my fingers, and unthinkingly spat on my hands.

We lowered it slowly into the grave, but then I found that I couldn’t lower it any further. The strap was digging into my hand and I couldn’t get it loose. The coffin tilted up on my side. The undertaker said “Let her down”. With a mighty effort, I loosened the strap, it raced throught my hands, and the poor woman went down and hit the bottom of the grave with a wet thud.

By now, I was in a complete state of terror. It was a bitterly cold day and the service in the graveyard went on and on.At last it was finished and as I turned to go away, I met my witty friend. He looked at me, standing there shivering and ashen pale in the face, and said “You know, I don’t think it’s worth your while going home at all”.

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