How It Felt To Be In My Coffin

(Some people may find this post a little disturbing, please be warned.)

Being a writer on set, you don’t have much to actually 'do', so I behaved much as I learned to do with the radio and theatre stuff – I kept my nose out of things and offered to help in any way I can.  As it turned out, being allowed along for the shooting of my short film ‘Channel 31’ yesterday allowed me to volunteer to do some quite outlandish things and left me with at least three experiences which I may never forget.

The fact that this 'day of remarkable memories' fell on my birthday only added to the special-ness of it all.

We started out filming in a real-live funeral home which, in true Irish fashion, had a pub out towards the front and a full-blown wedding going on out the back in a marquee.

We were meant to have a nice prop coffin but that fell through (no, not literally). The funeral director was most kind, though, he had a couple of real-life caskets on hand, waiting for the next customers to show up, and he was quite amenable to us using one of them.

So if you’ve got coffin to hand, all laid out nicely in the funeral home… you’re bound to want to give it a go, aren’t you? Well I certainly did and, soon enough, I was given an almost-legitimate reason for doing so. The actor who was spending time in the coffin was having a well-deserved cigarette out the back with the wedding-party and they needed a stand-in for the next set-up. Cue me to volunteer and climb into the coffin.

Can I just say again that this was the ‘Real McCoy’. The odds are good that by the end of the week somebody will be filling up that box for real. But for now it was my turn. In I climbed, the silky lining was cool and slinky but it did nothing to soften the hard wood beneath. If I were to describe the inside of my coffin in one word, I think it would be this: Snug. There’s not a while lot of room for doing stuff in there – which is probably as it should be.

I had a theatre play once where there was a real-life shotgun involved. Although it had been made-safe and certified as such by the police, there was still an aura of danger and unease about it. A character in the play had to put this gun into their mouth while another character prepared themselves to pull the trigger (are you getting a feel for my plays?). The point is that everyone joked about trying out this gun themselves but few did. It was like that with the coffin yesterday. I thought everyone would want a go – I saw it as a golden opportunity – and indeed it was. It gave me an unusual perspective on the funeral home and I fully expect it will fuel a nightmare or two somewhere down the line but that’s all to the good, right?

The second experience was funnier, well, less macabre anyway. We were just ready to shoot a short scene involving said casket when a traditional Irish quartet struck up in the garden to serenade the bride and groom. Again, being the useless writer, I volunteered to go out and try to silence them while the take was being ‘taken’ (note to self: learn more technical phrases). So off I went.

It was a tad awkward. The quartet were dressed up all nice and ‘trad’ – waistcoats and bowlers and shirt-sleeve-garters and such and they seemed most dubious when I asked them would they mind shutting up for a couple of minutes. Perhaps this was because the Bride and Groom were standing by waiting to be played-to. Still they obliged. The two minutes ran more like five but it actually felt like five hours. The 'coffin gig' was much much easier. My nightmares about holding up the wedding will be, I am sure, even more disturbing that the coffin ones.

The last five hours of the days filming ran from eleven p.m. to four a.m. and took place in a remote country graveyard which could only be reached across fields, walls, and farmyards. The sizable crew of actors, DOP, sound, lighting, makeup, costume, producer… who else, oh yes, writer, how could I forget? - we all trooped all of the equipment across this rural assault course and set up while the mid-summer sun reluctantly set and the moon enthusiastically rose. We had a few rain showers, were bombarded by enormous moths and spooked by the imposing old headstones but we got through it in the end.

My mission here was to dig some earth from outside the hallowed ground so we could emulate some digging inside without actually disturbing anyone or being in any way disrespectful. to the residents. So, midnight saw me digging hard outside the graveyard wall as the bats fluttered around and that moon glowered uncanny red through the low lying mists.

What did you get for your birthday Ken?

I got to spend it with new friends in a creative endeavour which felt like guerrilla film-making even though it was all done with permission.

I got to have some experiences which I am confident will stay with me until I once again fill up a casket.

And I got to see my beloved little film being made – and the shots, by the way, look stunning.

Beat that for your birthday, I dare you.


Laura Brown said...

I wouldn't have gone in the coffin. One thing I know (from seeing so many family members buried) is that I do NOT want to be a reanimated corpse where they put all that makeup on the dead body and try to make it look like the undead zombie of nightmare. I hate that. People aren't even recognizable in their caskets. Actually, I think I'd like my coffin kept closed until they all gathered around (those who cared to) and then pop! it is opened and there I am, wearing a Halloween mask! That would spook the piss out of a few of them. My family would just laugh once they got over the surprise.

Ken Armstrong said...

Laura: The Hallowe'en mask is a damnably good idea. :) Your point touches on why I put a little warning on the front of this post. If I had done what I did without ever having looked into one of those boxes and seen someone I loved in there, then this would a be a naive and self-satisfied exercise. But I've been there and done that and the effort of climbing in and looking out may not be entirely without cost. It was still worth it though, I think.

Grannymar said...

I have seen more than enough 'stiffs' in my lifetime, so when my turn comes the lid goes on and stays closed while the party and laughter goes on around me!

Guy Adams and John L. Probert said...

I used to run a "theatrical" Ghost Tour in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Dressed up in victorian gear, shouting about dead folk, nothing too interesting. Every Halloween was a huge spectacle though with hundreds attending and we would try and make it a bigger show every year. I decided to make my entrance by being carried down the street in a coffin. The coffin would be carried through the crowds, set on its end and opened whereupon I would step out.

I contacted a local carpenter to have one made, got myself measured up (in my top hat to ensure clearance) and, once it was done, having no room in the flat, we ended up in the front garden, trying it out for size and making sure it was transportable. The neighbors really didn't have much time for me after that.

Even though it was just a silly prop there was a strange feeling to it all, as it had been built specifically to contain me. The way sounds echoed once you were inside it, the shudder as people shifted the weight on their shoulders. It all turned out to be distinctly unnerving.

It got left out in the rain one year and warped, rotting before its owner. I'm only too glad.

Anonymous said...

Wow, all that and no mention of cake.

dermot tynan said...

T'was great and I completely forgot it was your birthday!!! Can't believe we let that one go by without marking it some way, like throwing you down the grave or something.

We're going through the audio now to see if we can figure out your CB handle... :)

Unknown said...

Yes, I think I would have tried the coffin...I don't think I'd have the lid closed, though, or maybe just the bottom part.

Peace - Rene

Ken Armstrong said...

Grannymar: 'Stiff' is probably not a funeral-home word but I do know what you mean. :) Yes, I've seen a few beloved stiffs myself at this stage. The 46 year old version of me didn't climb into his casket as carelessly as the 21 year old had.

Guy: You got it in one - there was a 'strange feeling to it all'. I guess we can whistle past the graveyard all we like but it will still be there waiting for us.

carlae: I had to buy myself a bloody cake! It was still nice though. :)

Dermot: Let me know if you figure anything. I was at the stage where I'd decided I would have to throw my hands up and admit I didn't succeed when I just when for it and shouted it out. Everyone looked at me and I said, 'Oh shit, I've blown it now' but then everyone moved on. I did do it though, I really did. :)

Rene: It was a one piece lid so no bottom-bit option. I think we're aa naturally curious bunch, we folk who climb into other people's coffins. :)

Kat Mortensen said...

I'd have no problem getting a coffin. None whatsoever. Can't wait, in fact.

Happy Belated Birthday! ( I notice you've got a new photo up now. You're reminding me of Bradley Walsh (ex-Corrie, now Law and Order UK).

I've still got 2 years on ya!


P.S. Have you seen "UP"?

Jim Murdoch said...

As I began reading through this wee post waiting for you to surprise me it dawned on me that I'm not sure anything you said you did would surprise me. And I wasn't surprised this time. Maybe next time.

Ken Armstrong said...

Poetikat: Bradley Walshe? Hmm, I know that name. I'll have to go and Google him up - handsome devil is he?? ;)

Jim: I think I'm complimented by this - still trying to figure my feelings out. P'rhaps I should write a poem about my conflicting emotions.

No... :)

Susan at Stony River said...

That birthday is SUPERB. I hope you don't reply the coffin thing for a long long long long time.

I mean, looooong.

jan geronimo said...

A bit macabre yes, but as long as it's another person's coffin, I'd have to say yes as well. But not on my birthday, for crying out loud.

Aerté Du Draumr said...

Guerrilla film making...I like it!