I often wonder would I make a better pallbearer if I were born in America. Coffins are carried by the handles in America.
In Ireland they are carried on the shoulders.
I have very small shoulders.
This coupled with other ailments not particularly conducive to the transportation of a casket-dodgy hernia, tight upper trapezius muscles and my cervicogenic headaches mean I always stare at the ground when, post-funeral ceremony, help is requested for coffin-carrying duties.
However, being a member of a family, a tribe, a community, the older you get, as members of that family, tribe, community die off, you are expected to step up and offer your assistance. Especially since those that have done the carrying are now doing the dying and need replacing.
But still I have always remained steadfast in my non-participation.
That is, until one funeral in May last year.
“Will you help carry the coffin?”
“I think it would be the right thing to do.”
“I’d rather not. My tendonitis seems to have flared up.”
“But, it’s your father.”
I had to think about this. Eldest son really should join in on the ritual. In all the books, all the movies, all the television news items, the eldest son is always visible, top right or top left, taking control, manfully suppressing tears and guiding that wooden box to its final destination.
What was wrong with me? Had I no shame?
Reluctantly, I joined my cousins. Masculine, mountain men. Some looked Greek with their swarthy features and bountiful facial hair. We planned the first step of the manoeuvre. The successful lifting and conveying of coffin from inside the church to the hearse outside.
All I remember is that things went very well for the first twenty seconds. Then blank.
I was later told I had fainted. When I came to, Maggie, my six-year old niece was offering me some ice-cream on one of the pews as her brother, my fifteen-year old nephew Greg had been drafted in to successfully move father’s pine structure through the church door.
I never felt so humiliated. This will never happen again I vowed as I gently caressed my throbbing elbow. I have to get in shape. Next funeral, I will be first in line to offer help. I will carry the damn thing on my own – if needs be!
Over the next month I devised a strict fitness regime. On the exercise bike every morning. On the treadmill every evening. Every manner of stretch. I used weights. Bulked up. In six weeks I was a new man. Primed for any funeral service action. All I needed was the right opportunity.
But the months went by. Nobody died. Not one member of my extended family passed away. Uncle Ned was eighty-seven. Had been in a coma since November 2011, but he kept hanging in there. A medical aberration, one neurologist claimed. Auntie Flossie had had so many cancers we’d lost count. Her latest was a lump on the coccyx. Coccyx cancer. I’d never heard of that one. But she developed it. Yet she was a fighter. “I’ll beat this” – she kept saying. And strangely enough I believed her. Grand-uncle Roger, ninety-two crashed his Ford Cortina at top speed into a tree – the car was a complete write-off, but Roger emerged unscathed and just went out and bought himself a new jaguar.
I was desperate. Wanted to prove my new-found casket-carrying credentials to my family. My tribe. My people. To keep myself readied I even started going to random funeral services out of town, approaching mourners and saying “Sorry for your loss. By the way, do you need any help to carry the coffin? Are you a man short?” They’d just look at me. Slightly scared. “No, thanks. Now, go away. Please.”
Finally in early February, Uncle Ned, sadly, inevitably, passed away. If only I hadn’t booked that holiday to Madeira. My girlfriend Gillian had been on to me for months. She liked my new shape and refined pectoral qualities but had felt I needed a break from my constant pall-bearing ruminations.
A month later, however, my luck changed. Mother rang.
“Your Auntie Flossie died this morning.”
“Great. When’s the funeral?”
My cousins were both impressed and surprised when I immediately approached them after the funeral mass. I told them I would consider it a great honour to help carry Flossie’s coffin. They nodded. We started to lift it from the bier. I felt no problems whatsoever. No ligaments tweaked, no bones strained, and most important of all, no fainting. I was 100% fit and in peak shape. In fact, belatedly, I felt this sort of thing suited me. I was a natural. Nothing like good, honest, physical labour to make a man of you. I even started fantasising about pall-bearing as a new Olympic sport, could be a bit like rowing – except without the boat and water and with a coffin – two teams having to strenuously move a casket quickest over a given area.
We effortlessly shifted the coffin out of the church and seamlessly navigating the church steps, headed towards the hearse outside. We gently placed the coffin in the back. There was a pause. I was feeling silently chuffed. At last, I finally belonged to my family. My tribe. My people. I envisaged future funerals. I’d always be there. Standing firm. A sturdy rock of dependability. Always available for any masculine chores.
Then cousin Fintan turned to me.
“My first one of those.”
“What do you mean?”
“Those eco-coffins. Cardboard. Flossie was a mad one for the environment. They only weigh a fraction of the normal ones.”
Header photograph: By Alan Bruce [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons