At Death All are Equal. A story of a war hero's funeral where the veil of discrimination, anger, pain is lifted.
It was an odd-sized casket, too small for a man, too big for a child. A flag was draped over it, a smallish one. It was carried by four men in uniform, though it was hard to tell for sure from a distance what uniform it was, or even if they were all men. There wasn't room for the usual six pallbearers due to the small size of the casket since it would have made for a comical service to have all six jammed together, shoulder-to-shoulder, crowding around an under-sized coffin. So, the extra pallbearers were in the ranks of many others in uniform standing beside a small open grave. The officiant wore a robe instead of a uniform and must have said something because there was a long silence, then a burst of laughter.
I wondered, why was the casket size so small for such a tall Officer. My journalist antennas switched on, popped up a long list of questions. I bit my tongue and started witnessing the farewell of Col. John Mullock. He was a brave, chivalrous veteran who sacrificed his life during WWII.
A military funeral is usually an organized affair. The inside sources revealed, non- commissioned officer, Paul Bullock had planned it well; however, the last-minute changes and lack of resources were nerve-wracking for him. Plus, the weather went against him. It was raining cats and dogs in the middle of the summer months. Inspite of all the odds against him, the giant funeral was shaping up in the National War Memorial in Wellington.
The military branch, honoured guard teams and friends sent invitations for fellow veterans to attend the funeral. The news took off like fire, and more than 1000 people were expected to pay tribute to their popular hero who sacrificed himself to defend their freedom. Paul was nervous as the chairs and seating arrangement was disorganized chaos. The original venue for speeches was in the covered courts of the conference hall which had to be demolished a fortnight ago and was under construction.
Paul and his team were on guard, communicating on walkie- talkie. He rehearsed the sequence of the event with the group several times, making sure everything runs smoothly as per the planned schedule. Sometimes, things are just out of your control. And, how can we learn and improvise if nothing goes wrong?
Luckily, a sharp team member checked the black coloured casket which was just dispatched by Star freight services. The casket was 5cm short in length. Col. John Mullock was 180cm tall. Sweat trickled down Paul’s face, but nothing could be changed. The Colonel’s shoes would be squashed on the edges of the casket. What torture even after death!
The whole confusion with the wrong delivery was due to another military funeral in Wellington on the same day. The bigger size casket was delivered elsewhere, and the wrong one landed in Paul’s lap. The freight company was ready to compensate for the mistake; however; couldn’t provide another casket at such short notice. Paul and his team had to manage with the blunder and pull on the show.
Paul’s faith, abilities were put to the test and his reputation at stake. His team backed him up, and to his surprise, the crew decided to keep it as a secret as no one doubted Paul’s efficiency and efforts. There was pin-drop long eerie silence in the cemetery. The team was working like robots on autopilot with fear and uncertainty of what would go wrong next.
Paul realized he had to make some changes. With the change in casket size, the number of pallbearers was reduced to 4. He had to choose the strongly built fellows who could bear the weight of the heavy casket with Col. Mullock on their shoulders. As a spectator of this whole commotion, I wondered who the star of the show was? Paul Mullock or Col. John Mullock?
Another bolt of shock came with a small-sized flag enough to cover only half the body of the tall (in deeds too) veteran. Paul looked at the sky in disbelief and begged the Almighty to have mercy on him and the poor soul of Col. Mullock. By now, he had started doubting himself. He could hear himself mumbling, “Is anything going to go right with this funeral? Why are you throwing so many challenges for me? I am tired, exhausted”.
It was about time. Invitees had started coming in. The seating arrangement was organized on the soaking lawn in the pouring rain. The rank officers and dignitaries’ seats reserved in the front row. The media crew waited on either side, ready to catch the glimpses on the camera. Umbrellas were prepared in huge baskets to receive the guests of honour. Paul quickly instructed a pallbearer to welcome the guests and make them seated as planned.
The seating arrangement was made close to the gravesite with a close friend and whanau member seated in the centre holding the folded national flag throughout the service. Gazebos set up for elderly veterans and family members. Attendees were guided to their seats with fellow veterans to the military-style funeral for their D-day hero.
Paul was running between errands. He decorated the casket with fragrant red roses and carnations. The auburn, blue and orange saddle headstone flowers with a white angel engraved on the casket looked pretty. Bouquets of posies, gerbera, and roses were kept ready for the uniformed officers.
The wreath and rings comprised of fragrant roses, lilies, carnations, wax flowers and green foliage. Paul breathed a sigh of relief and was happy with his arrangements and the team efforts to make it happen at any cost. It would be all worth at the end with the warrior led to rest in peace.
The service began with opening speeches from Brigadier Verma, followed by fellow veteran Lt. Burton who shared memories of war with Col Mullock. “He will be missed by all. What a jolly good man he was” His friends' shared funny stories which turned the place into loud chuckles and laughter amongst tears running down some cheeks. Close friends mourned for their loss. The salty tears were washed away with the rain.
Honorary pallbearers and mourners were positioned in the reverse order of the rank, Ancient Roman custom to show that at death all are equal. Do we have to wait till death to dissolve this veil of discrimination, fear, jealousy, pain, anger that surrounds humanity in our modern world? Could we value beauty in other spirits with every encounter to keep humans in us alive? There will be no wars.
Firing squad riflemen fired three volleys, a custom that follows an old superstition to scare away the evil spirits and the enemy. The volleys were also fired during the European dynastic wars when fighting hailed to remove the dead and wounded from the battlefield. The ceremony saw a march past by 50 soldiers with guests of honour looking on. The casket was ready with pretty flowers.
Everything was falling into place bit by bit, yet there was a big elephant to be conquered as the grave wasn’t ready. Torrential rain filled the dug grave with water. Inspite of all the pre-planned and organized efforts, several men were busy digging a grave for burial at the cemetery. Manoeuvring the stones carefully, steadily with precision was not an easy job.
They built a covered patio to avoid waterlogging of the soil in the grave area. The earth was stable and soft; however, the bulldozer dug out some sand which made the soil a bit lose on the sides. It meant, more work and time was needed to build the walls of the grave. Several scoops of earth were removed manually and with the equipment by the gravediggers.
The grave wasn’t ready until sunset, so the whole event was rushed and disorganized, except for the very last part. The grave was a massive affair, more of a crater than a grave, and it took until dark to roll the casket down to the bottom. If any prayers were said, they couldn’t be heard over the dull thudding of the clods raining down on the casket far below. It was an odd-sized casket, too big for a man, too small for a dream, but just right for a dynasty.
Author: Pranoti Gupta