Hugh Dougal: Hundreds expected at funeral of beloved undertaker
HE was there to help their families during the most difficult of times, now hundreds of mourners are expected to turn out tomorrow to pay their last respects to beloved Belfast funeral director Hugh Dougal.
Mr Dougal, who died surrounded by his family in Northern Ireland Hospice on Sunday after a short illness, officially retired several years ago from O'Kane's funeral directors on Donegall Street - handing the reins to son Hugh.
But he would still drop everything when a family asked particularly for his services at the funeral of a loved one.
"He was so popular, he'd head off to Ballycastle (where he played golf every weekend in retirement) and we'd give him a call saying somebody's ringing who needs you, and, God help him, he would turn the car around and come back," Hugh said.
The 72-year-old was a third generation undertaker, his grandfather - and namesake - buying the business in 1940, but keeping its original name.
Mr Dougal's own career there started in 1964 as a mechanic working on the hearses, before moving on to the funeral team and eventually head of the firm.
His service was throughout the darkest days of the Troubles, with the firm holding the contract from the coroner's office, collecting the bodies of `sudden deaths' across the greater Belfast area - and occasionally facing attack from gunmen at dangerous scenes.
Among them were those mutilated by the Shankill Butchers.
Through it all, Mr Dougal remained a calm, constant, reassuring presence, shielding even his own family from the horrors he had seen.
"He was a quiet man," Hugh said.
"He didn't talk about it, to tell the truth. He kept a lot of it in. In later life he would have reflected on it.
"He was so busy at times, he didn't get home as much as he wanted to. For many years he had to work so many nights and days. He was on-call 365 days a year.
"But he never let it fall onto the family life."
Poignantly, Mr Dougal urged his son to take a different approach.
"He said to me when I started this job, `Look, I know you've to work hard, but enjoy yourself, enjoy your kids, don't let it take over your life."
However, for the Dougals work has been family, with daughter Cathy also a key part of the business and his wife Frances a familiar face around the office.
"He was so close to me and my sister," Hugh said.
"He was very good, he let me put my input into the business. Some people wouldn't have wanted to let go of the reins, but he said, `Yes it's your time now'.
"They are enormous shoes to fill."
Mr Dougal had a late career on the small screen as an undertaker in hit BBC crime drama The Fall and "made up for lost time" by becoming a "very active" grandparent, attending all his six grandchildren's events.
His grieving 18-year-old grandson had to sit an A-level exam yesterday.
The family have been touched by the tributes flooding in for the former president of the National Association of Funeral Directors, who was also closely associated with St Malachy's College on Antrim Road, being described across the board as a "true gentleman".
And as only to be expected from such a consummate professional, he had his own funeral plans ready.
"I came into his office and he'd told me where (the plan) was. It was heartbreaking," said Hugh.
"He was a simple man. He said to me he wanted a traditional church funeral, he was very into his church. He was very discreet, he wasn't flash, very easily pleased."
The family "will just be mourners" tomorrow at the funeral in St Brigid's Church, Derryvolgie, where friends and well-wishers will gather for Requiem Mass at noon.
They trust their "excellent" colleagues to ensure Mr Dougal has the send off he has earned.