I got £1 and 3 shillings a week in 1951 as an apprentice at the building firm, Pethicks. They built most of Flexbury side of town – Morwenna Terrace, Stratton School, the chapel at Flexbury and more, but the builders were also undertakers.
Their workshop was antiquated but their workmanship excellent. Dust flew everywhere. If there was a funeral, the boss would take the call, and go to visit the family. The building foreman would measure up the body, then we would make an elm (oak if wealthy) coffin from scratch. They were made, lined, and polished by threee of us in about three hours.
The firm then called in a labourer to dig the grave. He had a template from the general foreman which was a cross made of timber with string around it. This was to ensure the template went in the grave without touching the sides.
Early on in my apprenticeship, the foreman asked if I had a suit. He requested me to wear it one day with a black tie. We were pall bearers. Most funerals were late morning and our perk was to get the rest of the day off if we did the pallbearing.
We had some exciting moments with coffins. Our employer had a wheelchair. His office was separate but he kept the door open so he could more easily get in and out. One day, I suggested to my friend that he try a coffin out, so in he climbed, and I put the lid on. Then we realised the boss was coming so my friend had to stay there. The boss would come, look at the lid and check the polishing was right. My friend was in there for quite a while!
If someone died, they stayed st home in the front room. Once in Marhamchurch, we had to get a coffin down from upstairs. The cottage was tiny so we had to carry it down upright with all the mourners waiting! People were not buried in shrouds. Coffins were made from coffin boards so if anyone was especially large (unusual then) we’d have a different set. Cremations were rare, it was nearly all burials.
For a burial, after making the coffin base, we poured in liquid pitch to seal the joints, then one person each end (quite a job on) would turn it on its side to seal the coffin. For cremations we used liquid candle wax which could catch fire. Cremations were beginning to take place at Barnstaple.
Transport for the funeral was organised by local garages. Two of them had hearses, with taxis for visitors. Luckily, the boss’s brother in law owned Maynard’s garage.