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Death of an Undertaker

by Ian Robertson

Death is a significant but inevitable occurrence in everyone’s life.

Tis strange all right, lookin’ at him there, laid out on the table, a lifeless body, a corpse. ‘Tis hard to credit it. One day buryin’ people, the next bein’ buried yourself. It’s up to me now to give him a decent burial. He taught me well, though. I’ll grant ye that.

“You have to respect the dead, Christy boy.” He called me ‘boy’ to the last, even though I’m headin’ on for sixty now. 

Did I respect him in life? Can I respect him dead? 

“The dead can’t speak back, you see, Christy boy.” 

I sometimes wish they could, for I’m sure, if they could, they’d dispense with all the pomp and ceremony and sombre marches to the graveside. “Come on, lads,” they’d say. “Let’s get it over with. Who’s goin’ to remember me in a hundred year anyway? Just throw me into an ould ditch and be done with it.” But then, of course, John Joe Patterson and Associates would be without a job.

Would John Joe Patterson want all that? Maybe he would. Maybe he wouldn’t.

It’s hard to respect a dead body, a carcass, a piece of rottin’ flesh. You have to respect the man that was. Who the hell was John Joe Patterson, anyway? Did I love him or did I hate him? I don’t know. Probably somewhere in between.  

I came into his funeral parlour one day. Oh, sure I wasn’t more than sixteen at the time, as dumb as hell, and with no prospects, barrin’ takin’ the boat from Rosslare to Fishguard. But I went in to John Joe Patterson and Associates Funereal Services, anyway. I’d seen himself struttin’ along the Main Street a good many times and he’d always struck me as a decent sort of a man, if a little high and mighty lookin’. I had nothin’ to lose. So, I went in and headed for the desk opposite the door. I stood there for a while, gawkin’, head bent, without a word in me mouth, lookin’ at him writin’ in a ledger. It was strange seein’ him there behind the desk. It didn’t seem right somehow that a man like that should be workin’. 

Anyway, he raises his head, gives me a long look and says in that lah-dih-dah accent of his, “Is there anything I can do for you, young man?” 

“Well, I was wonderin’, Sir,” says I, “if ye have ayr an ould job now.” 

“Ayr an ould job?” says he, with a hint of amusement in his voice. “What’s your name, anyway?” 

“Christy, Sir. Christy McDermot.” 

“Would you be any relation of Fergus McDermot that used to work at Pearse’s Iron Foundry?”

“That’d be my father, Sir.” 

“Oh, it would, would it? Now, I happened to like Fergus McDermot. He was a great craftsman. Made many handles for my coffins. Works of art, in fact. Is he still going strong?” 

“He is, Sir, though he’s a bit shook of late. He have the shakes these past couple of years.” 

“He have the shakes, do he? I’m sorry to hear that, but I suppose he must be getting on a bit now. Well, give him my regards. So, have you ever come across a dead body, Christy?” 

“I have not, Sir.” 

“Well, I suppose you have nothing against dead bodies?” 

“I do not, Sir.” 

“That’s good. They’re fairly harmless, by and large, though they can surprise you sometimes. It’s the gas, you see, that accumulates in the bowels and stomach. You might be inclined to put it down to spite, if you weren’t in the know, but I assure you it is merely malodour. You know what that is, Christy boy?” 

“Oh, I think so, Sir. The ould man do have it somethin’ terrible. Stinks the place out.”

“No doubt. Well, as I was saying, the dead are harmless enough, barring certain malodorous exhalations. You don’t believe in ghosts, I suppose.” 

“Well, I do and I don’t.” 

“Now, that’s a very interesting perspective on the matter, though I have to admit, somewhat paradoxical.” 

“Now, I don’t happen to know what that word means, Sir.” 

“Ah, you don’t, Christy. Well, you should. It’s a very important word, because it sums up life. It’s something like a contradiction. I suppose you know what that means.” 

“I think so, Sir.” 

“So, when can you start?” 

“Whenever you like, Sir.” 

“Good. In that case you can start straight away. There’s a couple of stiffs, as the Yanks say, in the back room that need washing and shaving and stitching up and that waster of an assistant of mine has let me down yet again. The drink, Christy. It is the scourge of our nation.” 

“Oh, it is all right, Sir.” 

“I’m glad you agree with me. But I have to tell you, Christy, I am not in the habit of getting my hands dirty. I simply apply the artistic refinements. Do ye mind getting your hands dirty, Christy?” 

“Oh, begob, Sir, I do not.” 

“Well, I can see by the look of ye ye wouldn’t last a week on a construction site in London. So, I have a white coat there in the cupboard. Put it on and let’s get scrubbing.” 

And that was it. I’ve been workin’ for John Joe Patterson and Associates Funereal Services ever since.


Ian Douglas Robertson is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin. He lives and works in Athens, Greece, as a teacher, actor and translator. He has had a number of poems and short stories published in online and print magazines as well as three books of non-fiction in collaboration with his wife Katerina. He has also recently published several novels, available on Amazon, including Break, Break, Break, Under the Olive Tree, The Frankenstein Legacy, On the Side of the Angels, The Reluctant Messiah and The Adventures of Jackie and Jovie. He was chosen as Poet of the month of May 2023 by The Poet. He also published to novels in 2011, entitled Fo’s Baby and Turtle Hawks.


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