Some friends and I in the fire service used to work part-time as coffin bearers. I guess it was because we already had dark uniforms, we had been trained to march in step and we were not freaked out by corpses. Most of the time we carried the coffins of retired local council officials or other local dignitaries. We always tried to have fun with it like we did with everything else.
Inevitably when we were doing this job the ongoing challenge was to make each other laugh at some point during the funeral. On one occasion we had removed the coffin of a former councilman from the back of the hearse and we were carrying it into a small country church when one of my colleagues tested the rest of us to the limit. Tony “Shooter” Gunn was opposite me at the front end of the coffin and he thought it would be funny to give the coffin a shove in my direction as our heads were directly between the coffin and the narrow stone archway of the church door. His timing was perfect and my head impacted the stone with some severity and left my head ringing and my vision blurred as we made our way down the aisle. In fact, I am sure if I had let go of the coffin I would have staggered off into the pews like a drunk. Luckily, because we were walking so slowly, my head cleared considerably before we had to put the coffin down on the trestle in front of the altar, but I still stumbled slightly as we all took three paces back from the coffin in a well-rehearsed and choreographed motion. I glanced up to see Tony and the other two guys opposite, faces bright red and biting their bottom lips trying not to laugh as they stood with heads bowed and hands clasped in front of them. I could see out of the corner of my eye that the two guys to my right were doing the same thing. I cursed Tony under my breath.
During the first hymn, I noticed the vicar walking slowly towards me as he sang. He leaned towards me slightly when he got near and asked in a hoarse whisper behind his hymn book, “Are you aware that you are bleeding my son?” I touched my face where it hurt and inspected my fingers. I was. I heard snorts from my friends as they fought to contain their laughter but luckily the mourners, singing forlornly, heard nothing above the sound of the church organ. With a slight nod and a thumbs up I assured the vicar I was okay and he surreptitiously slipped me a tissue to clean up the blood. When the service finished we picked up the coffin and took it out to the graveyard for the burial. Luckily the damaged side of my face was against the coffin on the way out so the mourners still couldn’t see it. We left the graveside as soon as the coffin was on the ground and made good our escape to the nearest pub where we were able to laugh without restraint before anybody saw us. Nobody except the vicar ever noticed anything.
On another occasion we were carrying a deceased former local mayor down the aisle of a church for his funeral service when one of our crew became quite the ventriloquist and started knocking softly but rapidly on the side of the coffin and saying in a frantic but muffled sounding voice as if from within the coffin, “Help! Help! Let me out!” All six of us arrived at the altar with tears streaming down our faces as we fought to contain our laughter. As we wiped our tears away a flash went off and I looked round to see a local press photographer lower his camera and start scribbling furiously in his notepad. I imagined the headlines the next day: “Firemen Mock Mayor’s Funeral” or “Firemen Find Mayor’s Funeral Funny” or similar. We were sure we would lose our jobs. The first thing the next day I bought a copy of the newspaper and thumbed frantically through it looking for the damning article. Then I found it. “Firemen Weep for Deceased Ex-Mayor”. Phew.