Funeral Fun - Emptying the crypt

Gates into Waverley Cemetery.
    This was perhaps my favourite day at W.N.Bull.  It was also one of the hardest and dirtiest and even somewhat dangerous.

    Basically the job was to move five coffins in a crypt so it could be renovated.  I had never been in a crypt before but had heard stories.  People described them as dark, damp, dirty, small, boring and slippery.  So I  was actually rather excited and looking forward to it.

The day before we took the stretchers out of the transfer van and filled it with things we might need.  Such as boards, ropes, torches and so on.  Just a variety of things that might be handy if needed.  I was put in the van and sent on a funeral first.  This meant I had to bring a more 'practical' set of cloths as my three piece funeral suit would not be suitable for pulling coffins out of a crypt.

    After the funeral I made my way over to Waverley Cemetery where the crypt was.  As usual I was the first to arrive and so I had plenty of time to sit and eat my lunch.  After all I would soon need my energy.  I sat near the gate so that it was in sight but I was hidden.  It was starting to turn into a miserable day,  it was cold, overcast and looked like rain.  Hardly the sort of weather we wanted.

    Not too much later everyone else started to arrive and we made our way to the crypt.  As they set up I changed into the more suitable work clothes.  It had started to spit rain very lightly and then stopped, I remember one of the other undertakers commenting that he hopped the rain would keep away, even for a little bit.

    When they had opened the door and set up we went inside to assess the situation.  The job involved taking four adult coffins and one baby coffin off shelves and then taking them down one level into a room underneath the crypt.  Unfortunately the door to the basement room under the crypt was directly infront of the door to the crypt itself and actually very small.  It was not so much a 'door' as a small and steep hole with some stairs.  Even better this hole was right in front of the door to the upper level.  So we had to cover it up with boards to be able to get in and out of the upper level.  Then we would have to uncover it to get to the bottom level.

Three crypts at Waverley, the one of the right is very
similar to the one we worked out of.
    The room with the coffins was fairly small, there was not much standing room at all.  And two of the coffins were quite high, at about my head height.  The coffins themselves were also quite heavy, they were solid timber or oak and had an inch of lead lining inside.  Plus half of them had no handels and thus had nothing to tie ropes to.  All of this meant it would be a difficult and somewhat dangerous job.  We had to drag heavy coffins off high shelves in a dark and slippery stone room.  Then we had to slid them through a step hole not much bigger than the coffins themselves.  Finally we would have to lift these heavy coffin up above our heads and onto the shelves in another small and even darker room.

    And there were only four of us.  The grave diggers were not allowed to help due to OH&S issues.  They obviously felt sorry for us and helped how they could, in fact a couple got quite actively involved.  But they were council employees and council diggers cannot by law do certain things.  Such as move coffins (like lowering or carrying them) and so on.  All due to OH&S and insurance issues.

    But what could we do?  There were only four of us and the poor family had waited months for the job to be done.  But our boss had been putting it off.  And a family member was present through the job, he was obviously very upset at seeing his family being moved about but he was also extremely grateful.

    We set to work and moved the two easiest coffins out first.  I remember thinking how difficult it was, that these two coffins were so heavy and how little room there was.  Little did I know that this would be the easiest part of the job.  After taking the  two coffins out we loaded them into the back of the van.  Then we uncovered the hole to the bottom level and started to take the coffins down.

    Here was the trouble, the hole was just big enough to fit the coffins and very step.  We had to tie the coffin with rops, lower it foot first down the hole, then send the smaller person to squeeze between the coffin and the hole and direct it as the others continued to lower.  Guess who was the 'smaller' person, me!  I was to squeeze myself down the hole and direct the coffin until there was enough room for the others to come down and help me.

    This is how we got the first coffin into the room.  But then we had to get it on a shelf.  Because of the lack of room and steepness of the hole we could barely raise the foot end of the coffin to get it onto the shelf.  It kept getting caught on the walls, and with its heavy weight we had a lot of trouble.  But we did it, the first two coffins were on the shelves and done.

    Now it got hard.  The next two coffins were bigger, heavier, had no handels and were higher.  We lifted them up onto sticks while still on the shelves, then we tied ropes around them.  Next I climbed up to the top shelf of the crypt (which had nothing on it except debris and dirt).  I had to lie on this shelf as it was close to the roof and then take a rope to help swing the coffin out.  So there I lay, in the dirt on a cold shelf in a crypt.  All while swinging a heavy coffin down.

    With a lot of trouble and effort we got the last two coffins out.  But they were larger, so getting them down the hole was more difficult.  I remember at one point another undertaker getting his pants caught on the coffin as he tried to squeeze past it to get down the hole.  It was quite funny actually, seing him stuck there by his pants to a coffin!  Even he thought it was funny.  But then the supervisor reminded us that the family was watching and we had to stop giggling.

    In the end we got the job done, but it was very dirty and a lot of work.  When we finished the family member thanked us all personally, he was very grateful for the job and thought we had done well.  And I had so much fun doing it, we all did.  As difficult and dirty as it was it was also very rewarding and seing the job finished was so satisfying.  I really enjoyed the day and the job with good people.


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