Liam Farrell: Death can be a heavy burden to bear

My native village, Rostrevor, in Northern Ireland, is ensconced at the foot of the Mourne mountains.

The scenery is stunning, the inspiration for CS Lewis's Narnia, and for the famous lyrics: 'Where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea/Like a short fat lady in a long leather dress'. (OK, I added that last bit myself.) But there is a dark side; to get anywhere there, you have to walk uphill. In particular, our ancient graveyard is perched a mile up the mountain - nice for the deceased, inconvenient for the bereaved.

It used to be easier; after the service, we'd pop the coffin in the hearse and drive up. Then, a few years ago, a calamity occurred. One family, wishing to show its grief was greater than anyone else's, decided to carry the coffin all the way up.

Corteges collapsing in exhaustion became commonplace. If the funeral was small, a shortage of pallbearers was another possibility.

On one occasion, strolling along at the back, I was called to take a turn. 'Hey,' I felt like saying, 'I didn't know him well and I didn't like him much.' But I took my place at the rear of the coffin, which turned out to be a tactical error. The pallbearer on the other side was much shorter than me, so all the weight was crushing down on my clavicle. Did I mention it was uphill, raining, the wind was against us and the deceased was a big fat guy?

The pain was excruciating and I almost put the coffin down and admitted, 'I'm not strong enough, he's too heavy,' but this would have shamed my family and its seed, breed and generation.

However, I didn't become a doctor by being stupid.

With my free hand, in a clandestine manner, I gradually pushed the coffin sideways, transferring the load on to Shorty's neck. Soon, strangulating noises were audible and the coffin was listing, ready to topple. The cortege rushed forward in alarm, my burden was relieved and I gilded the lily by ministering with faux concern to Shorty, by now blue in the face.

As a senior colleague once said to me: 'There's nothing worse than a smiling bastard.'

  • Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Follow him on Twitter @drlfarrell.

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