Thursday, April 29, 2010
We Do Have A One-Way Ride...
Ro and Cliff
Besides the usual historic tours, engagements, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries, the company I work for, Carriage For Hire, also provides the final ride for horse enthusiasts— their funeral.
Tony, waiting for this gig to begin.
Several years ago, when Tony's original owner passed on, we provided the hearse for his services.
Last week, Tony's dad's brother, (so Tony's human Uncle) expired, and we were asked to participate.
Unlike carriage rides downtown, providing the hearse involves hauling both the horse and the conveyance offsite, usually to a location close to the cemetery, and transferring the coffin from a modern hearse to the 1840's Cunningham. A while back I wrote a blog about needing to "do" a funeral for research for a scene I was contemplating, because in order to bring the emotion and ambiance to the written word I prefer to experience some things first hand. So, when I found out that a funeral was booked close to my house, I asked Ro if I could assist.
Since the mortuary was located quite a distance from the internment, the plan was to meet up with the funeral procession along the route. Ro and Cliff found a gravel parking lot large enough to accommodate the stock trailer, unloaded both Tony and the hearse, and waited to intercept the departed about a quarter mile from the final destination.
Circa 1840's Cunningham Hearse
"Wait", here, is the operative word. Because you just can't rush a dead guy.
While the three of us killed time, we were approached twice by random strangers asking about our plans. The first person got out of his car and started asking questions about the provenance of the hearse. He seemed quite knowledgeable about varieties of horse drawn funerary vehicles, and we had a pleasant conversation with him. The second man was more interested in who died.
Warming up in the parking lot
While standing around waiting to rendezvous with the procession, we watched as a silver hearse drove by, and tried to flag it down. When they did not immediately flip a u-turn, Ro called dispatch and advised that they'd missed us. A few minutes later she was informed that it had been a different funeral procession, and our customer was still enroute.
Ro and Tony, waiting for our passenger to arrive
The correct deceased finally showed up, and the transfer process began. It was good for me to be there in person and observe, because if I am ever called on to work a funeral, on the job training is not necessarily the best way to go.
While Cliff assisted the pall bearers in guiding the beautiful natural light pine casket onto the rollers and into the hearse, Ro stood by Tony's head and held him steady; having a horse decide to walk off while loading a body into the back can be a Very. Bad. Thing.
Next it was determined that no one from the family wanted to ride up top with the driver (Cliff). This is an option offered to a representative of the deceased. Some do it, some decline. So Ro climbed up and rode shotgun with Cliff and I stopped traffic on the busy road so they could make a left out of the parking lot, then I kept traffic stopped while the balance of the funeral procession joined in.
I drove down to the cemetery in Ro's car, and walked across the grounds, meeting up with them in time for the pall bearers to remove the casket and proceed to the plot.
The thing about arriving in a horse drawn hearse it this: Most often it is because the deceased had some connection with horses. Whether it was that his family once owned the animal hauling the hearse, or the person loved horses, it represents an aspect of their life. Many of those in attendance took photos of their loved one's unconventional arrival, and several people wanted to pet Tony. One gentleman asked if the horse was Tony or Tom (Tony's equine brother and team mate, who passed long ago.)
After the beloved was removed, we headed back to the parking lot to pack up. On the return trip, Ro drove her car and I rode up top with Cliff. And let me tell you, it's high up there.
The Cunningham's interior
Now, anybody that knows me, also knows that I, upon learning that someone has an unusual occupation, will ask a series of questions that typically encompass the same theme.
And since the ride back took about 15 minutes, and because Cliff's done a lot of funerals, I had the opportunity to interview him about some of his experiences.
Note: The questions and answers are not verbatim. It's just a recap of our conversation;
SD: What is the weirdest thing that ever happened?
Cliff: We did a funeral where we used the buckboard instead of the hearse. Getting the casket in was difficult and it kept rolling backwards, which loosened the wheel nuts. When we finally got the casket in, we started forward, one of the wheels fell off and we dumped the casket. So we had to hurry up, lift the buckboard, put the wheel back on, tighten all the nuts and reload the casket.
SD: What was the funniest thing?
Cliff: The deceased's brother rode up top with me and kept cracking jokes the whole time. I laughed so hard that the hearse was weaving all over the road. The carriage company owner was driving behind us in her car and said it looked like I was driving drunk.
SD: And the saddest?
Cliff: A little girl 9 or 10, died in a freak accident. Her coffin was so tiny back there; it was like putting a match box in a car trunk. Very tragic.
SD: And the most memorable?
Cliff: We were in a small town out by Spanish Fork. The procession went from one end of town to the other; it was quite a distance and most of the mourners walked behind the hearse, which is customary. Little old Grandma rode up top with me and after a while I asked if she wanted to drive. She was delighted and drove the hearse for a little while, but as we got closer to the cemetery she handed back the lines and said, "Here, there are a lot of people walking around. I don't want to run any of them over, I've already killed several people that way you know…"
(And this is how it all goes back into the trailer:)
First in goes the hearse
In goes Tony
(I'd like to thank Ro and Cliff for allowing me to tag along. It was definitely a memorable experience.)