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
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.