‘And the captain said to the mate, “Dan, tell us a story!” And the story went as follows…’
Following the last instalment, we’re sticking with the mundane (this time, in its earth-to-earth, dustiest sense). Here’s my first experience of being a pallbearer.
My Grandad was one of those eternally old men, grey and grizzly with a big red nose. He cut a bit of a remote figure, heading up a family that sprawls several generations and offshoot branches. Scrambling through bushes in his garden, or hosting weird play-marriages in the cellar, or trading terrifying ghost stories in the attic of his massive old house in Bradford, for me, my siblings and cousins as snotty-nosed children, he was a bit intimidating. Shut away often in the no-go zone that was his study, deep in his scholarship of literature and translation, Grandad could be pretty aloof. But he was also kind. He was as comfortable dealing out mischievous shaggy dog stories that delighted us as he was semi-serious threats to whack us with his walking sticks for making too much noise. We both feared and loved him.
In the last year or so of his life, aged 85 and just shy of sixty years of evidently close, thoroughly affectionate marriage to our Granny, my Grandad began to slip away. A miserable mix of dementia and cancer stepped in between the Grandad we knew and the one that that we saw. He lost his fierce edge, his cutting quips, his ready twinkle, with the hardest part, of course, being the moments when these things occasionally flashed back through the fog to remind us all what we were steadily losing. When finally he died last spring, it was a raw relief. My Grandad was a dedicated convert to Catholicism, taking to the faith as an adult: he knew with conviction he was going to eternal life and heaven, and I hope it’s all it’s cracked up to be, Grandad.
Now then, to the pallbearing. With the call from my Dad – his son – coming just two days before the funeral, I was asked to be a pallbearer for Grandad suspiciously late in the day. I have a distinct feeling my name came up following a hasty, last-minute scraping of the familial barrel. I’ll take it, though, as the honour (and logistical necessity) it was. My height means I can stand alongside an average gaggle of men, shoulder to shoulder, and blend right in, which is a useful attribute for a lone, interloping female pallbearer. Grandad’s family is certainly rich with vibrant women, so I’m proud to have represented that at the end. In my own gangly way.
I remember expecting it to be uncomfortable on multiple levels, but nothing really prepares you for the weird solemnity of pallbearing. As we waited for it all to begin, an awkward energy hung over the gathering guests, and my brother and I, quiet by the church doors, dealt out small smiles to family and strangers as they filed past. No one seemed really sure of the etiquette, or even the schedule. Eventually, though, the hearse rolled in. Under the steady and sensitive direction of a small fleet of shinily-buttoned undertakers, my cousins, brother, dad and I took up our pallbearing positions. In the lush green garden of an old flint Sussex church, washed in a morning sunshine and the occasional chirruping song of an unseen bird, the casket carrying began.
Shuffling awkwardly under the weight of it, never in time, and I have to say, not actually well-matched for heights (good job organising that one, Dad), we carried Grandad into and then, after the service, back out of the church. We made it intact all the way to his final resting spot, right next to the neighbouring stranger’s garish grave with the floral monstrosities left by evidently enthusiastic and tasteless relatives. You worry, of course, about doing it right, the pallbearing – not dropping or tripping or in any other quite literal way letting the side down. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter that your efforts are at best shambolic and that you need the undertaker-fleet to step in to do the tricky (read: going round corners) manoeuvres. The power and privilege of the act is that you are there, your bearing is a testimony.
It’s both otherworldly and thoroughly physical, pallbearing. It yanks you intimately close to the finality of the moment, the mix of the earthy organic with the sacred. Leaving the church and under the swelling chorus of the closing hymn, my Grandad’s musty smell began to gather gently in my nose. It’s strange the things that catch you. In a sudden wave, I began to cry.
‘It was a dark and stormy night, and the rain came down in torrents. And the captain said to the mate…”
Lucy Whitehouse’s My First Time series can be found here.
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