poem was an evocation of Victorian-era stoicism – the ‘stiff upper lip’ which
popular culture had rendered a British national value. Sadly Kipling’s ode to
high-minded values seems to have no echo in modern society, where everything is
someone else’s fault and no-one seems capable of taking responsibility, even for
always remember my first employer drumming into me how the real sign of manhood
was having the courage to stick your hand up and say “Sorry folks, that was my
fault” when you made a mistake. Nowhere is that credo more important than when,
amongst a crowd of people, you alone have ultimate responsibility for
have been many occasions over the years when I’ve had to summon the Kipling
spirit. I’ve had two incidents just recently: one where I had to keep my head
when someone else had lost theirs and one where triumph (well, actually it was
a Triumph motorcycle) and disaster had to be met in the same moment.
Unfortunately on both occasions the actual culprit was a young member of my
first incident occurred when he was sent to hand deliver an envelope full of
donation cheques and then drop the post off at the same time. You guessed it –
he dropped the post off first and then realised he’d accidentally posted the
unstamped, donations envelope as well. Luckily we’re on good terms with the
staff at the local Post Office and they very kindly intercepted the collection
van and rescued the envelope.
following day I was out on a funeral for which we’d hired a motorcycle hearse,
to reflect the deceased’s love of motorbikes. The family wanted to follow in
their own cars, so before the cortege left the house I told them that to save
time at the church they should just abandon their cars and give their keys to
my assistant so he could turn and re-park them all during the service.
led the cortege in my own car, travelling at a discreet distance in front so
that all eyes were on the motorcycle hearse. Meanwhile, all my bearers
travelled separately in another company car – apart from my young assistant,
who travelled with me. As planned, he gathered up everyone’s keys at the church
and re-parked all the family cars.
Then, at the end of the service, with the
mourners all admiring the motorcycle hearse before it departed for the
crematorium, I told the bearers to carry on ahead. Minutes later I felt a tap
on my shoulder and turned to find my young assistant beside me, hopping from
foot to foot in agitation.
all the other bearers gone off to the crem?” He whispered urgently.
I said, instantly sensing trouble looming.
I put everyone’s car keys in the glove box of the bearers’ vehicle because I
thought they’d be safe in there!”
immediately performed my ventriloquist party trick of being able to mutter an
entire dictionary’s worth of expletives without moving my lips, before ducking
round the corner to make discreet but frantic phone calls to various bearers’ mobile
phones. But needless to say, they all had their phones on silent because they
were on duty…
breaking the news to the family we managed in the end to get everyone piled
into other mourners’ spare cars and I took carload myself too. That was a rather
to re-write Kipling’s poem for him:
you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
You really ought to consider a career as a funeral director…”
James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.
He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director”