Undertaking

Dad was a joiner and worked for the local undertaker. His original workshop was on the ground floor of a building which housed the working men’s club on the upper floor. There was always a low rumbling noise coming from above, which I could never fathom. I realised later it was the noise of the members enjoying their pint and a natter. Next to our house was a series of buildings which had once been used by a wheelwright and blacksmith, and the business was transferred there, which meant that Dad only had a few steps to take to go to work.

Mum used to go to the cinema one night a week so then it was just Dad and me. If he had a coffin to make and had to work late, I would join him in the workshop next door and watch him working. Sometimes he would set me on dusting the shelves, which contained all manner of boxes of nuts, bolts, screws, and so on. That was a thankless task as they were always covered in dust, especially sawdust. I used to imagine I was in a shop selling those items.

I can still see Dad now making a coffin. First he would saw the wood to the right shape using a motorized circular saw — a task I didn’t like to watch as I was afraid he would lose a finger. Luckily he never did. Then the sides of the casket had to be shaped by cutting grooves across the sawn pieces and scalding them with boiling water to make the wood pliable so that it could be bent into shape After the coffin was assembled boiling pitch was poured in to seal it. Dad was quite adept at tilting the coffin to cover the inside with the black stuff. It was almost like coating a tin before baking a cake. The next step was the lining, which would be finished off with a frill round the edge. Dad prided himself on his handiwork and spent ages polishing the exterior, which I helped to do. The lid was cut into shape also and beading put round and nailed on. There was also beading round the base of the coffin. Then there was the job of attaching brass screws to the lid, and last of all the nameplate of the deceased was added. The engraving of the nameplate was done by a professional engraver, I think. If a more expensive coffin was required, Dad would ask us to go and view it when he had completed it. We took it all in our stride and didn’t see anything gloomy about it all. If there were several deaths simultaneously Dad would sometimes stay up all night to complete his tasks. The neighbours couldn’t have been very pleased with all the hammering which ensued.

When Dad’s boss got too old to conduct funerals himself, Dad took over and enjoyed dressing up in his frock coat and top hat, which he would polish with a handkerchief before setting off. I think he only ever had one suit to wear on these occasions, and I recall noticing in later years that the backside of his striped trousers was nearly threadbare. It’s a good job the coat had tails to hide it.

There was always a bottle of disinfectant spray in the kitchen, which Dad used to spray the bodies when he went to measure them up, which he did with the aid of a local woman who used to act as unofficial layer out. This disinfectant was not particularly nice in my opinion. It was certainly no Eau de Cologne!

As he went about his daily work in the village, Dad would now and then hear on the grapevine of people who were very ill, and he would come home and say, ‘Old so-and so’s nearly dead!’ He was thinking that another casket would be called for. Unfortunately, there was great rivalry between funeral directors and he would be most disappointed if he found that the Co-Op had been commissioned for the task.

During summer, farmers would bring drays into the yard for repairs before haymaking started. They needed new spokes on wheels and other repairs. I hated hot summer days and recall spending lots of time sitting under these drays to keep out of the sun. I suppose I could have stayed indoors but then Dad would worry that I wasn’t well. He seemed to have an obsession with my bowel habits and every day when he came home from work he would ask my mum if I had been to the toilet. If I hadn’t it would be a dose of syrup of figs, which was horrible. Thankfully he stopped enquiring when my sister was born. Maybe he transferred his concern on to her, but I was very relieved, if you’ll pardon the pun.

The workshop was in three sections — the main workshop and two adjoining sections. One of the latter was used to store timber, while the other was converted into a Chapel of Rest to keep up with the Co-Op. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very big and if there was more than one body to be left in there, the others had to be moved out if relatives were coming to view their nearest and dearest. I’m not sure where Dad moved them to. It’s a good job he never mixed them up.

In later years my brother worked with Dad, and he was sometimes asked to be a bearer at a funeral. My brother is not very tall and on one occasion he was asked to perform the task at the crematorium. He was placed at one of the rear corners of the coffin with three tall chaps manning the other corners. Consequently the coffin was higher than him and he wasn’t supporting it in any way. He saw the funny side of this and couldn’t help laughing which didn’t go down well with the grieving relatives. After the service, the superintendent at the crematorium gave him a reprimand and said he would be barred if he did it again. I don’t know what Dad was thinking of in choosing a bearer so much shorter than the others. Mind you, one needs a sense of humour in that job.

For Christmas one year Dad made me a blackboard and easel. Another year he made me a desk with a chair attached. I’m not sure if I was very pleased with these items as I hated school and these seemed an extension of it.

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