GP Magazine 28 October 2013

My native village Rostrevor, is ensconced at the foot of the Mourne Mountains. The scenery is stunning, the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, and for the famous song “Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea/like a short fat lady in a long leather dress” (OK, I added that bit myself).

But there is a Dark Side; to get anywhere, you have to walk uphill. In particular, our ancient graveyard is perched a mile up the mountain, nice for the deceased, but 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 display publicly that their grief was greater than anyone else’s, decided to carry the coffin all the way up.

And once one family did it, everyone had to do it, in case people would think they didn’t care, and the spectacle of corteges collapsing pitifully in exhaustion became commonplace. If the funeral was small, a shortage of pallbearers was also a possibility.

On one occasion, strolling along at the back, because it was a nice day for a walk in the countryside, I was suddenly called to take a turn. “Hey,” I felt like saying, “I didn’t know him that well, and anyway I didn’t like him very much.”

But willy-nilly, I took my place at the rear of the coffin, a grave 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 their seed, breed and generation, my mighty ancestors would have turned in their grave and thrown up in disgust. 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 onto 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.”

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