The Undertaker’s Coffin
by Ross Turner.
I write short stories, novels and poetry. I study Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire, and am a member of the Royal Air Force Reserves.
The Undertaker’s Coffin
‘Prepare to feed,’ I say. ‘Feed.’
The six Pallbearers are lined up in three pairs. The Uncle and the younger Brother – the two shortest, and therefore the front-most pair – reach into the yawning hearse. They grasp the two nearest handles, on either side of the pale, pine coffin, and pull. I have already removed the goose neck – the stopper which keeps the coffin secure whilst in transport. I left the rubber-tipped pegs in so it feeds out straight. The coffin fires out head first, overshoots, crashes into the second pair of Pallbearers’ thighs, clatters to the floor; a thick shard of wood splinters off one corner, skitters off over the tarmac.
Close my eyes, sigh.
‘It’s on rollers, gentlemen,’ I say. ‘You have to feed slowly.’
Five Pallbearers nod in dumb unison. The sixth stands, winces, clutches his thigh. At my gesture, they gather around the coffin, right it, lift it, feed it back into the hearse feet first.
‘In position,’ I say. They line up like toy soldiers. Dead serious. ‘Prepare to feed. Feed.’
Cautious this time, the front pair feed to the middle pair – Father and Friend – who in turn feed to the taller back pair – Cousin and older Brother – and all six face inwards. Eye each other. Coffin waist-high. Hands beneath the wood moulding base.
‘Prepare to lift. Lift.’ Coffin ascends. ‘Slow. Dignified. Level.’ Ear panels come to eye-height. ‘Outward, turn.’
Half turn one way, half the other. Coffin spills off unmatched shoulders, topples to the ground at normal speed. CRACK. Latch pins burst. Lid flies open. In my mind, I see coffin innards vomiting over the tarmac, spewing corpse valance in front of the blackened bereaved. Fortunately, no one is there to see. The ruptured coffin lies empty, lined hollow white. The sound skips around the otherwise empty practice-yard. It’s rare, I think, to have a Bearer Party as bad as this. It’s a good job Alice isn’t in her grave yet, or she’d already be turning in it. I reassure her – I’ll whip them into shape if it kills me.
‘Alright, gentlemen,’ I say. ‘Let’s try again.’
Right the coffin, close the lid, hook up the latch receivers. Lift, twist, re-feed into the hearse.
‘Gentlemen.’ I rub my eyes. ‘It’s in backwards, gentlemen.’
Feed, rotate, re-feed. Time for a short break. Dumb nods – dumb nobs. Inside, out of sight. Breathe. Breathe again. Roy Palmer: experienced, empathetic Undertaker, exquisite funeral provider. Before today, the hardest thing about my job was dressing overweight, dead people. But they’re always compliant – malleable.
Whenever a gentleman comes in for me to dress who takes a size 9, I always ask to try his shoes. I prefer brown leather if I’m honest, but I wouldn’t be caught dead in brown shoes – black is much smarter. In fact, I tried a pair last month. Very agreeable fellow, elderly chap, good taste.
‘Mr Graves,’ I said. ‘Might I try your shoes for size?’
Smart, leather shoes, two-tone – light black and dark black – subtle pattern, nothing too vulgar. I purchased them online the next day. There was a problem with delivery though and I had to ring customer services. Nightmare; live people try to think for themselves, never listen, cause problems. The dead are much easier – much more palatable.
‘Very good, gentlemen. Well done.’ The coffin has been fed. It’s up onto shoulders. The Pallbearers are all facing the right way, arms crossed, hand on partner’s shoulder. Alice would be dead impressed. I pace out a dozen steps, set the training catafalque, return to the rear of the coffin. ‘Now, don’t forget, step with your inside foot first. Small steps. Slow. Dignified. Level. Tomorrow you’re bearing Alice for her final journey.’ I place my hand on the coffin’s rear face, tender. ‘Prepare to step. Step. Inside. Outside. Inside. Outside.’
For five paces – a generous four and a half – all is well. I guide the coffin from the rear, palm flat, issuing quiet cadence. But on the fifth, the Cousin’s hand slips. He’s in the rear pair, with the older Brother, carrying the head end. His shoulder tilts and the coffin slides across into the Brother’s head.
On that pre-arranged command, all six step away. The coffin crashes to the floor again, spills its empty guts. I take a haggard breath.
‘Again please, gentlemen.’
That evening, I make myself a roast dinner. Small, oven-cooked turkey, complete with thick stuffing. Carrots and parsnips, cut lengthways. Beansprouts and cabbage, not cut at all. Roast potatoes, not too big so they’re crunchier. And, of course, Yorkshires. Boil the veg, use the water for the gravy. Turn off the extractor. Christmas smell. Eat at my mahogany dining table – beautiful, dark wood. I shower, let the hot waterfall massage my back, towel off, dress in beige chinos and a pink polo. Clean the kitchen, wipe the spotless, marble surfaces. Scrub the pots, pans, trays – generic, mindless duties. Finally, place everything away, close drawers, shut cupboards, step out into the garden.
What gets bigger the more you take away from it? I stand above the hole, six-foot deep in irony. At the bottom, the coffin. My coffin. Gorgeous dark wood mouldings, columns, ear panels. Alluring, tapered edges – wide and narrow in all the right places. Climb down, unthread the latch pins. Inside, valance spills out silk white against the evening. Remove my shoes, lie down. No cushioning, base hard against my back. Feels good – natural. I close the lid but can’t latch it from the inside. Doesn’t matter. Darkness hugs me. I fall asleep.
When I wake up, I press the light on my wristwatch, check the time – 22:49. Raindrops patter against the hard, beautiful wood, like a thousand maggots knocking quietly, asking permission to creep inside and feed on my flesh. I sigh, push the lid open, close it quickly to keep the silk dry. Squelch my feet into my shoes, climb, go into the house to use the toilet. Wipe, flush, brush, bleach, flush brush again. Change into nightclothes, dry, warm. My bed is soft, deep, plush – extravagant valance.
I am not disturbed. I do not toss and turn. I lie still. But sleep does not come. Check my wristwatch – 01:41. Futile. I go back out into the garden. It’s already Friday, the day of Alice’s funeral. Set my wristwatch alarm for 07:30. Hard wood against my back. Opaque air. Earthy smell. Fall asleep immediately.
The Cortege turns down Cemetery Drive at 5mph, passes between listing headstones and overhanging maples, clutching the last of their leaves. I always request Barry – he is my preferred hearse driver, reliable, sombre, never speeds. He stops the hearse at the entrance, at the edge of the carpeted walkway. The family and Pallbearer cars pull up behind. Barry opens the boot, removes the goose neck. Family and Pallbearer drivers open respective doors.
Sky is grey, cloudy. Hint of moisture in the air, but not quite rain. Perfect funeral weather. When I exhale, my breath is just visible; it doubles back, swallows me to settle the score. Ideal suit temperature – cold enough not to sweat, but not overcoat-cold. Morning is the only correct time for a funeral. Paying respects should always be the first order of the day.
The funeral draws out, goes well – doesn’t go too badly, at least; no coffin innards are spilled. The only bad parts are the parts I cannot control: the eulogies, the speakers themselves, the song. Once I have commenced the service, the Mother speaks first, delivers her eulogy. Besides what she says and how she says it, overall, I think, it’s only mildly disrespectful to Alice. Next, the Sister speaks; she is worse, stuttering, crying, no respect. But the worst is yet to come. I’m expecting it – I had the programmes printed. But that doesn’t lessen the repugnance of it. I resume my place at the head of the service. All rise. Final farewells – cue the music. The Bee Gees, Stayin’ Alive. I cringe. One by one they step up to the open coffin. Blotchy faces. Red, puffy eyes. Snivelling. Alice is the best dressed of them all. Seven clutch the rich, dark yew of her coffin. Three reach past that boundary, touch Alice herself. I wince, swallow the pastel look of her – impart a silent apology.
I often ask people what they see when they look at the dead. Most say things like peacefulness, calm, contentedness; none ever tell the truth. I look at Alice, see bleached beauty – unusual. But she has the typical expression I have come to accept too – impatience. Not long now, I promise her. Soon this will all be over, for good.
Afterwards, the family thank me for a job well done. I tell them it’s no trouble, once again offer my condolences. I’m not in the run-of-the-mill funeral business. I love a good funeral, but it has to be a good funeral. I don’t run a sausage factory: a funeral every forty-five minutes, two doorways, simultaneous exit and entry. Prepare to feed. Feed.
Bereaved scatter back to their cars, ashes on a light breeze. Haul themselves in, belt up – having been so recently reminded of their mortality – and ride off into the sunset; perhaps more accurately, they drive away beneath the grey, forenoon sky. I turn around, look up, black chimney-smoke billows. There goes Alice, I think, smeared against the heavy clouds – free.
I get home early; on Friday’s I usually do. Use the extra time to make stew – mutton, with apricots. Clove of garlic, crushed. Onion, peeled and sliced under running water to prevent my eyes stinging. Carrots, this time peeled and cut into square chunks. Cinnamon sticks and ground cumin. Coriander seeds and two cardamom pods, lightly crushed. Dried ginger root, good for testosterone. Mace, the edible kind, not the self-defence kind. Pinch of stock. Splash of white wine. Spoon of good, fruit chutney. Pinch of salt and fresh, black pepper. Eat at the table – stroke the beautiful, dark mahogany. Ship-shower, in and out. Towel, throw on joggers, t-shirt. Wipe down the kitchen, scrub it spotless, pots, pans, trays, marble. Polish knives, forks, spoons.
Upstairs, slowly now. Change into my best, black, three-piece suit. Made to measure, tapered. Shawl lapels with buttonhole for my boutonnière, black rose, dark maroon. Fasten my cufflinks – tiny embossed coffins on my wrists. Out comes my best watch, Omega, chrome-cogged face, silver links, three removed for the perfect fit. Slip on my tie pin, coffin shaped, lovely tapered edges.
Step out into the garden, plastic bags over my two-tone shoes – light black and dark black – smart, subtle.
There’s no alarm on my Omega, but I don’t need one; it’s Saturday tomorrow, no funerals. Off come the bags, in I go. Hard wood against my back. Smile. Fall asleep immediately.