The other side of the hedge: Tom Foy shares a poignant memory


Back in the late 60′s, early 70′s I worked as a Sanitary Inspector.  We were Jack of all trades, masters of none.  Our bible was the Public Health (Scotland) Act, 1897 as amended.  Section 16 dealt with public nuisances.  If someone died intestate they would start to rot and smell.  Hey ho!  A public health nuisance.   So we had to “abate” the nuisance by registering the death, hiring an undertaker, securing a burial and arranging for a minister to officiate at the funeral.

I would drive to the cemetery in a Ford Anglia provided by the Council and wait for the cortege to arrive. A deal of funerals were for Scottish gypsy travellers.  From the very old to the very young.

A newly born child had died and her pauper’s funeral, as was the custom, was to take place in the cemetery behind the bushes in unhallowed ground.

There was no need to place an obituary in the local newspaper.  Her relatives would be there.

I waited at the gates.  The family were already waiting behind the bushes at the other end of the cemetery. The cortège arrived at the same time as a straggler appeared.  How old was she?  I don’t know.  But her leathery skin spoke of the seasons.  The minister in the hired black limousine asked if I could take her to the grave in my car.  His car was empty.  He could have given her succour but he chose not to.  She was not of his flock.

The lady climbed into the Ford Anglia.  She stank of pish and cheap wine.  She thanked me profusely.  She had a couple of brown stumps of teeth left in her head.  I thought of lice and fleas. My flesh crawled.

At the grave, the minster gave the usual sermon, performed in a perfunctory manner.  Many mansions, through a glass darkly.

On the other side of the hedge, on the rise, granite headstones looked on, glistening in the sun. Testimonies to the lives of ordinary folk. Saints and sinners, sleeping together beneath that lush green counterpane.

The travellers looked down at the grave.  The small coffin. A life unknown. Tears rolled down their faces. Some sobbed.  Some hugged.

And there we were.  Humanity or the social contract.  Choose.

The minister and I chose society.  The travellers had no choice. Born on the wrong side of the hedge.

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