Not very long ago, I was working as a school dinner lady. I know, I know; that’s completely blown your image of me, hasn’t it? But although it fitted around the boys’ school hours, and took my mind off the ongoing divorce saga, I loathed every minute. I hated it so much, I used to comfort myself by compiling a list of jobs which I thought were worse than mine. First place went to dental hygienists, second to chiropodists. Sure, they’re better paid, but could you imagine getting up in the morning knowing you were going to scrub bits off people’s manky teeth, or carve gnarled skin off grotty feet? Looking back to the piece I wrote about garra rufa fish, in hindsight, the craze was probably started by a disillusioned chiropodist.
Now that I no longer wash pots in a school kitchen, I hadn’t given my list much thought, but this morning, it needs re-adjusting. Between tap-class (oh yes!) and collecting eldest son from Scouts last night, I sat down to watch ‘The Human Planet’ on the BBC. I haven’t watched much of the series, but it features all sorts of colourful people from around the world, who all amaze me that their traditional ways of life still survive in our technological world, and make me long to run away and join them. Last night’s programme, of which I only watched a little, featured people living in remote mountain areas.
I tuned in with a pot of tea, just as the programme focussed on a remote Buddhist community high in the Himalayas. “One of the difficulties this community faces,” the venerable John Hurt said in his gravely tones. “Is how to deal with death.” He went on to explain that burials are against the community's beliefs, there are no trees for fuel to manage cremations, and so the answer is…. I know this, I thought, still wanting to put my hand up after all these years. I learned about it visiting Neolithic burial sites on Orkney. Sky burial!
The programme went on to the introduce the village undertaker. I didn’t catch his name, so let’s just call him ‘Fred’. He seemed a nice chap, sitting chanting with his prayer beads. Talking to the film crew, he explained that no one else could do what he does, not even the priests, but he does need a lot of whisky. I swigged my tea and wondered what on earth he was talking about. Archaeologists studying the many finds on Orkney, have shown bodies were laid out on specially constructed platforms near the cliff edges, and picked clean by sea eagles, before the bones were lovingly interred in elaborately built burial chambers. This might seem brutal these days when compared to our Western, squeamish approach to death, and I like a nice dram myself, but what was Fred talking about? I poured another cup of tea, and sat back.
They’d filmed a funeral. There was a small procession of priests, family, and, of course, Fred. They climbed up the mountain, one of the sons carrying the dead man’s body on his back. There was a brief ceremony, then the family left, and went back down the mountain. They don’t, John Hurt explained, want to witness what will happen next. Quite right, I thought, I don’t blame them. I agree with their beliefs the body is just a shell, but I can’t think of many people whose bodies I’d enjoy watching being picked apart by vultures. Not many, anyway. The priests sat down at a respectable distance from the body, still wrapped in its shroud, and I wondered again what Fred had been talking about.
‘Now,’ the narrator said. ‘Fred must do his work.’ What work? Oh yes, someone has to open the shroud and expose the body. ‘Fred must see to it that the birds can get to the flesh.’ Oh right, perhaps he has to undress said body. A grim task, but still, why the whisky? Then Fred is shown with an axe. And the next moment, you see him throwing things to the gathering flock.
Now, they didn’t actually show any more detail, but Fred’s job is to chop up the cadaver, and feed it to the birds.
No wonder he needs whisky.
So I think it’s official. Dental hygienists have been toppled off the top spot in the A-Z of the world’s worst jobs. I don’t think anyone can beat Fred. The piece concluded with him saying it was good Karma to feed the living creatures with the corpse, and it avoids the unpleasantness of finding remains strewn around by other scavengers. I don’t know a huge amount about Karma, but for facilitating the disposal of the village’s dead, I think Fred must have the most highest, purist Karma there is. And he deserves that whisky. I feel like sending him some myself.