Column

Adventures in the coffin trade!

Brian Keyes

Reporter:

Brian Keyes

Gerry Moran

Gerry Moran

Summertime invariably reminds me of my student days and those long vacations from College.
Good times. Great times. The best of times.
But time also to work, to make a few bob for fees and lodgings for the academic year ahead.
I had a variety of jobs during those long, hot summer holidays, but by far the most unusual summer job was my stint in a coffin factory in a small village by the banks of the River Barrow.
Coffin factory may conjure up images of grisly horror movies and ghoulish carry-on for most people but my memories of working there are of laughter, friendship and craic.
Surrounded by coffins every day of the week might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but when you find yourself drinking mugs of tea from an upturned coffin-lid, which served as our table, and sharing in the racy banter of elevenses, your thoughts are far from mortality, dying or death.
Our thoughts at the time were mostly about girls, the local girls, who passed by the factory door on their way to the village and who elicited a plethora of comments: good, bad and unprintable from the hard men on the premises.
Me, I was an innocent, harmless student and my job in the factory was simple: I had to sand the coffins, making them smooth and splinter-free before they were taken away to be varnished or waxed.
As simple as my job was, however, I didn’t find it easy.
Firstly, using a hammer and punch, all protruding nails had to be punched in and puttied over.
Then, using a wad of green, coarse sandpaper I attacked every inch of the coffin, every corner, crack and crevice. With a plain, pine coffin this was straightforward but more often than not the coffin had ornate panels which required intricate finger work with a chunk of folded, coarse sandpaper.
No easy task I assure you.
I loved working with obechi, a soft, yielding timber, which proved a pleasure to sand. An oak coffin was a nightmare. Solid, sturdy and stubborn my soft, unseasoned hand would often be red and raw from the constant up and down rhythmic movement.
Then came the final touch - one last application of putty to any little blemishes or cracks, a complete run over with a wad of fine, brown sandpaper and the coffin was ready to be varnished or waxed.
Coffins were varnished in the spray room, only the more expensive oaks or caskets requiring an application of wax which was applied from a white wax candle.
Time then for a cigarette or, if the boss was away, time possibly for a game of twenty-fives which we played sitting around an empty coffin oblivious to the fact that our “card-table” would soon be host to some corpse or other.
It didn’t bother us. Nothing bothers you when you’re losing, or winning, money. Not even the constant reminder of death.
And by God did I lose money. I seemed to make a habit, if you’ll pardon the pun, of losing. This green horn from the city damn near lost his shirt to the cute country card-sharks.
As it happened the craic was mighty round that card “table”. And if some suspect visitor arrived unexpectedly on the scene a coffin-lid was quickly thrown over the cards and money, the game to be resumed as soon as they left.
Later in the pub I played darts with my fellow coffin-makers and experienced my first serious drinking session.
Encouraged by my workmates, I told jokes to beat the band. I thought I was hilarious (I was, but not in the way that I imagined). In fact I couldn’t be shut up - the effects, I’m afraid, of numerous ale-shandies on an almost virgin liver.
Over those summer months I made friends for life with my workmates in death. Today at funerals, I find myself silently studying the coffins, admiring the handiwork of some anonymous coffin-sander.
And sometimes, in the midst of the mourning and sadness, my mind drifts back to the laughter and craic that I had in that small coffin factory in a little village by the banks of the River Barrow.