The ceremony of a military funeral requires time spent in preparation...
The funeral is on Saturday. Today we have to rehearse. We have to rehearse because burying a man is a serious thing. It cannot be done without practice. We have all day to learn what we have to do but still I feel uneasy because it is a complicated thing and on Saturday, ready or not, we have to bury our friend.
Normally we would be grumbling and grousing but today we cannot because we are all volunteers. We are here because we choose to be here unlike our friend who is dead. He will never be able to choose to do anything again. Normally we would joke and laugh and swear, but burying a man is a serious thing so we cannot joke or laugh or swear, instead we stand around with our cups of tea and talk quietly about trivial things. Who else is coming? When will we get started? What time will we finish? No one knows and the truth is it does not matter. We will have enough people, the rehearsals will start, we will get it right and we will go home. Because on Saturday we are burying Karl and nothing can change that.
We arrive in dribs and drabs. As each man enters he glances at the coffin placed in the corner of the hall and then walks briskly towards the small knot of people gathered around the tea urn. My friend Slip arrives. He gives me a nod and I nod back.
"What's this tea like?" He asks as he pulls a plastic cup from the stack.
"Like shite," I say. He takes a sip and grimaces, "Told you," I say. I feel like changing the subject, "Lets have a look at this coffin Slip."
We stroll over taking our tea with us. The coffin is stood on two wooden trestles. There is a square brass plate on the lid. I lean over and read the inscription.
"Property of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association London District. A drill coffin — so you can practice your funeral drill."
"Looks like it's been round the block a few times."
"Yeah." Slip takes hold of the brass handle on the foot of the coffin and gives it an experimental lift.
"That's not too bad."
We are joined by Geddy.
"Alright mate. This is for practising with is it?"
"Yeah — its a drill coffin. Property of London District."
The Company Sergeant Major calls everyone together. He is in charge of the funeral party. He has consulted the drill manual and made notes on how a funeral should be organised. He explains it to us.
"We need six guys to carry the coffin. We need two to carry the headdress of the guys carrying the coffin. I want one guy as a floater, ready to step in, in case of any problems. Everyone else will make up the firing party under Colour Sergeant Hewitt, alright George?" The Colour Sergeant nods.
The Sergeant Major lines us up in order of height. He selects the bearer party. Slip and I are both chosen. We are nearly the same height so we will stand together and carry the head of the coffin. A corpse travels feet first so we will be at the back. Those selected for the firing party depart with Colour Sergeant Hewitt to draw weapons from the armoury and practice their firing drills.
“We need some weight in the coffin.” The Sergeant Major is looking at me. “Take the blokes down to the loading bay and bring back a sandbag each. Six should be enough.”
Outside the sun is shining although there is a chill in the air. Good weather for October.
The smokers take advantage of the break and light up. Slip and I bring up the rear.
“Well Slip, this should be interesting.”
“How much does a sandbag weigh?”
“Six will be bleeding heavy.”
“Not heavy enough I reckon.”
The six sandbags fit snugly inside the coffin. I tell the Sergeant Major.
“I don’t think it’s heavy enough sir – Karl was a big bloke.”
“It’ll do for practicing. Right lads there’s three things we have to do. First we have to get the coffin out of the hearse and carry it into the church. Then we take it out of the church and put it back in the hearse. Then we have to make sure we are at the cemetery before the hearse gets there, because we then take it out again and carry it to the graveside – then we lower it in.”
The Sergeant Major is used to people listening to him. But today we listen more than usual. We are trying to picture the process and what we have to do. No one wants to get it wrong. There must be no fuck ups. The Sergeant Major knows what we are thinking.
“Most of you have done ceremonial duties before. But this is different. Usually if you make a mistake you take the bollocking and you soldier on and get it right next time. But if you fuck this up in front of Karl’s family… well, there isn’t going to be a next time.” He speaks quietly, almost gently. It is not something we are used to. “But we’ve got plenty of time and it isn’t that difficult. All you have to do is listen to what I say, and do it when I say it – If anyone looks like a prick it will be me.”
We all laugh. Not a loud laugh. What was said was not all that funny. But we laugh politely. We appreciate the gesture.
We position six foot tables around the hall. One represents the hearse and the other is the altar. The rehearsals begin. We practice taking the coffin out of the hearse, sliding it hand to hand until we all have a share of the burden. Then we lift to shoulder height and turn to the front. The weight is not too bad after all. We lock our arms over each others shoulders and form a solid unit, easily supporting the coffin between us. The Sergeant Major speaks quietly, giving his commands in a normal human voice.
“Prepare to lift — lift.”
“Forward — march.”
“Bearer party will turn inwards. Inwards — turn.”
He leaves a short pause before the last word to give us time to think, to ready ourselves for the next move, so that when the word comes we move together. It is like a slow dance.
We practice the slow march, pointing our toes and pausing in between each step. As we march the cold wood of the coffin is pressed against the side of my ear. Step. Pause. Step. Pause. Step. Pause. Apart from the Sergeant Major’s words of command and our footsteps the hall is silent.
In a short time we become very good at the slow march and the lifting and lowering of the coffin. As a reward the Sergeant Major gives us a break for tea and cigarettes. I stay around the tea urn with the non-smokers. The blokes make an effort not to speak quietly.
“Wonder if they get a lot of use out of that coffin.” Geddy sounds like a concerned tax-payer.
“It looks like it’s been round the block a few times alright.” Slip offers.
“Well its not like they’re going to have to buy a new one if it gets scratched is it.” I offer up a feeble joke and they laugh.
The firing party comes in. They lay their rifles down, forming a neat row next to the coffin and swarm around the urn blowing on their hands. We move out of their way.
“It’s not that bleeding cold is it lads?” I take the piss and there is more laughter. There is a general discussion about our roles; is it better to be in the firing party or the bearer party. Better, I say, to be in doors, in the warm not lugging a fucking rifle about. “I mean, you can’t take them fuckers in to the church can you? That’s right isn’t it Colour?” I ask Colour Sergeant Hewitt who is a fount of knowledge about army traditions.
“Yes – quite right. Only the Cameronians were allowed to take their rifles into church. In case they got attacked by Jacobites half way through the service!”
The atmosphere is getting quite jolly. After all it could be worse. It could be raining, or there could be no tea laid on, or the Sergeant Major could be in a bad mood. Or it could be one of us who is dead and lying in a mortuary, waiting for the funeral party on Saturday.
The Sergeant Major and the Colour Sergeant go into a corner to talk about serious things while we make our jokes. One by one the smokers are driven back inside by the cold weather. We spread out and coagulate into irregular groups making the most of the freedom of the tea break. One group stands by the coffin looking relaxed. I notice they use it as a convenient place to leave their cups.
"What time do you think they'll let us go Slip?" I nod towards the Sergeant Major and the Colour Sergeant as they continue their serious chat.
"Fuck knows," Slip grunts. "When they're happy I suppose."
"Could be a long wait then." I make the old joke and Slip laughs and I laugh with him. I look at my watch. We have five minutes of our break left. I swallow the dregs of the tea and throw the cup into the bin. There are three hours until lunch.
The rest of the morning goes slowly and we get four more cups of tea before lunch. There are frequent breaks while the Sergeant Major consults the drill manual. We are working on the more complicated parts of the ceremony. The bearer party has to carry the coffin to the grave and lower it onto four wooden batons, which will hold it suspended above the open pit. We have to go down on one knee to do it and then remain there for some time while we fold the flag that covers the coffin. We have the actual flag that will be used and Karl's full dress hat and belt are on it, held in place by tiny pins. The Sergeant Major breaks it down into small stages but it is proving to be difficult and mistakes are made. The Sergeant Major loses his temper but is still not shouting.
“Listen to my word of command don’t fucking anticipate. I’ll say ‘prepare to fold flag’, then I’ll say ‘fold’ and pause, and say ‘flag’. That’s when you move not fucking before. You understand Morley?”
“Right, take a five minute break and then we’ll crack on. I want to get this sorted before lunch.”