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A Mountain of a Man

As people get bigger, so do their clothes – and so do their coffins. It’s happening all around the world and a funeral directorship in Australia has decided to raise its fees for burying more. People who are well over average in weight or height will be asked to pay extra. A big coffin takes more work: the bottom has to be stronger and so do the joints. Otherwise the coffin could break as it’s lifted for transport to the grave.

Or it could break as it’s lowered into the grave. And of course the grave has to be bigger to accommodate a bigger coffin. The extra work can be considerable and sometimes it’s impossible for unaided manpower to carry a coffin. If someone of exceptional weight passes away, funeral directors may have to use a crane to lift the coffin. That’s still unusual, but the super-obese are like centenarians: there are many more of them than there used to be.

But we shouldn’t think that over-sized coffins are something new. An undertaker in Lincolnshire had a very big job on his hands more than two hundred years ago. England’s – and possibly the world’s – fattest man had passed away at the age of only thirty-nine. He was called Daniel Lambert and in the final year of his life he weighed an amazing 52 stone, or 728 pounds. If he took off his waistcoat, six ordinary men could fit inside it.

Back then, at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth, hunger was still a serious problem in the British Isles. Poor people could starve to death if they couldn’t find work or fell ill. Someone as big as Daniel Lambert must have been an amazing sight. In fact, we can be sure that he was, because he was able to earn money by exhibiting himself as a “Prodigy of Nature” – “The Greatest Curiosity in the World!”

He had originally worked at the famous Bridewell prison in London, but when that closed in 1805 he had the idea of exploiting his Unique Selling Point: his size. He put an advertisement in The Times, announcing that he would see visitors in the house he had found in Piccadilly. The charge for admittance was a shilling, which wasn’t cheap at the time, but his success was immediate: he had up to four hundred visitors a day. Six months later, he decided he had earned enough and returned to his hometown of Leicester to breed dogs and watch horse-racing.

When he needed extra money, he went on short tours, sending out advertisements and exhibiting himself in inns. That was why he was in the Lincolnshire town of Stamford in June 1809. He had asked a local printer to print him some leaflets, but he didn’t live to use them: he died while shaving one morning in his ground-floor room. His coffin was big – 6 foot 4 inches long and 4 feet 4 inches wide. It was also set on wheels. The coffin-maker put it together inside the inn and once Lambert was put into it, a wall had to be knocked down so that it could be wheeled out for burial at St Martin’s Church on Stamford High Street.

He had a short life by modern standards, but even by modern standards he was a remarkable size. Funeral directors don’t often have to deal with people who weigh over fifty stone. If they did, fees might be getting as big as Daniel Lambert.