Saturday, 30 July 2011

Tales from the Crypt - 2

Everyone seems to like morbidly fascinating stories about death (or how we deal with it), so carrying on from last night, here are a few more.

My first job which brought me into direct contact with stone was as an 'edge polisher' for Patrick's, a monumental stonemasonry firm based in the outskirts of Farnham, well over 40 years ago. I think it is still going today.

Patrick's business was divided into 2 related areas - the monumental masonry department and the funeral directors, based on the other side of the same yard. This summer job between college courses in sculpture gave me my first and lasting impression of the basic difference between stone-masons and ordinary, well-adjusted human beings. There could not have been a more graphic example of a 'glass half full' attitude toward life, as compared to 'glass half empty', when you compared the professions of funeral director to stone-mason which were so conveniently juxtaposed in Patrick's premises in Farnham.

Every single mason in the yard was a miserable and depressed individual who was unhappy with his job, his income, his family and - it has to be said - his life in general. The people who actually handled the corpses were - to a man - happy and friendly, seldom seen without a smile on their faces, constantly laughing, joking and whistling tunes to themselves as they walked around the yard or busied themselves with laying out the numerous cadavers that passed through their hands. Patrick's was situated very close to the hospital main entrance, so business was always brisk.

All the funeral staff there were Irish, for some reason. It seems that the Irish excel in the business of handling the aftermath of death - I wonder why that is? The director who took care of my mother's body was Irish, and we were surprised - when we paid a visit to his premises to view her laid-out body for the last time - to find her stretched out on a table in the man's living room, with his children playing on the carpet below as if it was normal to be sharing the place with a dead person - which, for them of course, it was.

I would be walking through Farnham on a day off and hear the honking of a car-horn, then look up to see a slow-moving cortege of black cars containing relatives of the deceased, headed by a vast hearse with the deceased in the back, and five smiling Irishmen waving and grinning at me through the windows.

The man in charge of Patrick's embalming service was a huge and jovial, black-haired giant from Cork, and I would often seek him out during tea breaks so that he could cheer me up before I went back to the miserable masons. He would tell me little stories and jokes, delivered in the classic, Southern Irish manner which turns the most ordinary people into unselfconscious poets - and extremely goods ones at that.

Near Farnham is the famous beauty spot called 'Newlands Corner', and it was on the steep, windy road which passes over there that the famous racing driver, Mike Hawthorn, met his death after crashing his Jaguar car during an unofficial race with another famous rival. It was my man from Cork who laid out Hawthorn's body and placed it into his coffin for the last time.

As he told me what he had to do to get Hawthorn into the box, he looked around to make sure that nobody was within ear-shot and said in a whisper, "I had to break both his legs with a wooden mallet, he was so stiff and his knees where sticking up. He didn't feel a thing, though - he was pretty smashed up as it was."

Even at the time, this struck me as pretty extreme, but - don't worry if you are reading this and think these practices still continue - modern embalmers are taught massage techniques on the dead in situations like that these days, and the industry is tightly drilled in showing respect to all family members, alive or dead.

This wasn't the only short-cut that was taken in the place in those days. One day, I was sent out with an older mason in a truck, and we made our way to a nearby stone war-memorial which was in good need of a clean.

I was expecting a full day's work, scrubbing away with pure water and brushes, but the old mason said, "Watch this", and pulled out a huge container of sulphuric acid from the truck, took the lid off it and chucked the entire contents over the granite, being careful not to get any in his eyes. We then settled back and spent about 2 hours reading newspapers before chucking a few buckets of water over the stonework, exposing the bright, Aberdeen granite as if it had been hewn from the living rock only a day or two before.

So I will do my best to assure you that this practice is (supposedly) discontinued today as well - conservators spend most of their time actually trying to neutralise the minutely acidic contaminants in stonework, not actually dowse the stuff over it like after-shave!

Next up: the smiling corpse of the Abbot of Waverley.


  1. I think a friend of mine was buried from that exact same hearse (in Essex).

  2. If you continue in this vein every Saturday I think you could start a meme called "Macabre Saturday" Tom.

  3. I was taught by my Irish mother and father and the Irish nuns who educated me, that we are "only" here on this earth to suffer it up and die so that we can earn our eternal reward. Glass half empty. However, no one can sing as sweet a song, write or recite a poem or joke, and laugh as melodically as the Irish. Glass half full.

  4. You can't help but be happy working with the dead...after're not them.

  5. I've known a few funeral directors in my time and they were all happy individuals.

  6. Yeah, the Irish and death, could not agree more. My best years as a nurse was the decade as hopice director. My best buds were all funeral home directors and coroners. We ate and slept death. Even my own then young kids were totally comfortable with it. Once when a staff member of mine called my house and left a message with my 1o yr old son that she would not be well enough to work the next day he reported to me "Mom, your nurse Betty called in dead"

  7. Ha! We all have to 'call in dead' at some point! "Miss Otis regrets..."