Having been brought up as the third generation of a building family, I spent much of my childhood playing and learning in the carpenter’s workshop. As was typical in the 1940s, it was quite normal for builders to double up as funeral directors, simply because they had the facilities to make the essential requirement, namely the coffin. As we lived in a village, it was normal for us to personally know many of the deceased so obviously there was an element of sadness but as a young lad, I was excited because this created my first ‘job’.
The starting point was generally a phone call from the family or doctor of the deceased and my father would then call to make arrnagements and measure the body. We kept in store coffin sets consisting of baseboards, usually of elm, together with sides and top most commonly in oak. The baseboard was marked out and cut, making sure that the ‘break’ was wide enough for the shoulders. The two ends were then nailed to the base using 2″ wire nails (a nail with a head). When purchased the sides were already ‘kerfed’ (saw cut) at the break to half their thickness. Starting at the head, the side was then nailed to the end using 2″ lost heads and to the base down to the break using 2″ wires. By this time the kettle will have boiled and hot water poured down the inside of the ‘kerf’ taking great care not to get any on the face of the timber which would cause unsightly stains. One person would then stand at the foot of the coffin and very gently lower the side over the break and his mate would nail it to the base with 2″ wires, and to the end with 2″ lost heads. The other side was then fixed and by this time my ‘job’ had started.
I would have collected all the shavings and wood scraps from under the benches and started a fire in an old oil drum so that we could heat up the solid black pitch to render it into liquid form. This was then carefully poured onto all the joints to make the coffin liquid proof against bodily fluid leaks. We can’t have the bearers getting wet shoulders! The vast majority of our work was for burials as at that time there was no local crematorium, so it was important to fix strong metal rings, 2 at the head and 1 at the foot, on the outside to enable the coffin to be lowered into the grave using strong Webbs. The internal lining was of white patterned cotton sheet with decorative trim. The top would be screwed on and finished with a thin oak cover strip. A similar strip would then cover the nails joing the base to the sides. The lost head nails joining the sides and ends would then be punched and filled, and the finished coffin would be polished or varnished.
So there we have our coffin and that leaves me with many more memories.