My brother, Alec, at the age of 10, like many of his contemporaries, was a keen soccer player. He was kicked in the lower abdominal area, which set up a chain of illness and, ultimately, total kidney failure. He died at 4 o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon in May of 1922. I was only six then, but to my dying day, I will remember that white-draped coffin on the parlour table, with my beautiful, golden-haired brother lying there with a little smile on his face. They say young children do not really grieve, but I have grieved for more than 70 years. He was a beautiful boy with shiny golden hair and picture-perfect features and complexion. It was my first experience of grief, and it has never gotten any easier!
When Alec died, he was at home. Although he had been deteriorating gradually for two years, it was not his kidney condition that killed him. He died from pneumonia in a sudden three-day illness, which his general condition could not resist. As was customary then, the undertaker came to the house that evening to measure him for a coffin, which was delivered the following afternoon. Alec's body was dressed in a simple, white shroud and placed in the coffin, which was shaped in the European style -- narrow at the head, wide at the shoulders, and narrowing toward the foot. It was covered in white material with a brass nameplate on the lid, eight brass handles, three on each side, and one on each end, with a long, rolled-up, silk cord at each handle, ending in a white silk tassel. When the undertakers left the house, we were allowed to go in and see Alec in the coffin, and that picture has been with me all my life.
The funeral was held on Saturday, and in the days before, friends and relatives called with condolences. There was much weeping among the ladies who visited. On the day of the funeral, my father was dressed in his black frock coat suit and silk hat. His brothers and uncles and other relatives, similarly dressed, gathered at the house with their wives, who, without exception, were dressed in black from head to toe. Our church minister arrived, and prior to holding a service in the back room, the undertaker asked if anyone would like to view the body before the coffin was closed.
The formalities were completed. The ministers then led a service with Bible readings and prayers. During the service, the undertaker's men carried the coffin from the house and placed it in the hearse, which was drawn by two all-black Belgian horses. Thereafter, all the male relatives, including myself, went downstairs and mounted horse-drawn carriages with the same black Belgian horses, two to a carriage. There were four carriages holding six passengers. A fifth open carriage followed behind and was loaded with wreaths and flowers. When everyone had safely entered the carriages, the undertaker, on foot, led the procession down to the main road. He then mounted the driver's box on the hearse for the ride to Riddrie Cemetery.
On arrival at the cemetery gate, the hearse stopped inside and the mourners disembarked from the carriages. They formed a queue behind the hearse and walked behind it to the open grave. The undertakers and gravediggers removed the coffin from the hearse and placed it on two planks of wood, which had been lain over the grave. The mourners gathered round. The undertaker then unrolled the silk cords from the coffin handles and handed a cord to each of the eight mourners, who had been preselected to perform the duty of lowering it into the ground. My dad had the head, I had the foot, and various uncles had the side cords.
The minister then started the service, and, at the proper time in the service, we released the cords and the coffin was slowly lowered. "Earth to earth," and the mourners each dropped some earth on the coffin. At the end of the service, we stood aside until the gravediggers filled in the grave and placed the flowers on top. The carriages then took all the men back to the house, where the ladies had the table laid for "High Tea," which included a meal of salmon sandwiches or boiled ham, which was often irreverently referred to as "funeral ham."
After a decent interval, the guests dispersed and we were left to contemplate the events of the day. Sometime in the next few years, my maternal grandparents, who died within a year of each other, were the last of the family to have a horse-drawn hearse and carriages at their burial. I've always felt that something was lost when the horses gave way to motor vehicles.
Until Alec's death, our family included Kit, or, as my Father called her, "Kate", who was born May 28, 1908; Alec, born May 10, 1910; William (myself) born September 13, 1915, and Peggy, born August 14, 1918. There was one other child, John, born 1912, who died at the age of nine months.