Downbeat Abbey

Aug 27, 2014
Downbeat Abbey Brace yourselves – I’m going to say something highly controversial. It will surely result in citizen’s arrest and interrogation at the hands of the television-viewing public:

I think Downton Abbey is unadulterated tripe.

I enjoyed Cranford, I loved Lark Rise To Candleford, but I cannot abide Downward Abbey. I would sooner be water-boarded than be subjected to even a minute of that puerile, period piffle. The historic howlers, the sniping servants, the boring butler and the underworked, upper class twits; they’re more than I can tolerate. 

However, a recent article on another blog offered the thought that funeral directors see Carson, the butler at Downsize Abbey, as the personification of the perfect funeral director. I can’t imagine how any half-decent funeral director could possibly want to compare himself with a character from Downtrodden Abbey, but let’s run with the idea for a moment. 

The article observed that butlers and funeral directors alike must remain unflappable in the face of both disaster and unreasonable demands. It suggested parallels with how modern butlers can no longer rely on working for “old-money families who know how to behave”, but instead are now exposed to the arbitrary and outrageous whims of oligarchs and lottery winners; the inference being that in much the same way, there are old school funeral directors who struggle to adjust to the trend for more celebratory and colourful funerals. I’m not one of them, but the observation is a fair one nonetheless.

So, do I spend my working day wafting around in a tail coat and wing collar, quietly harrumphing and raising a disapproving eyebrow at the antics of my mourners, like Carson does in Downfall Abbey? Sometimes, yes. I remember one edge-of-the-seat episode of Cranford when Miss. Matty nearly dropped dead with shame after someone “in trade” was seen using her front door. The hapless spinster spent the rest of the episode living in fear of exile and isolation for this crime of social propriety. I mention it because the equivalent faux pas in funerary terms is when late-arriving mourners burst into church with all the subtlety of the SAS storming the Iranian Embassy back in the 1980’s. It’s guaranteed to send my blood pressure up to critical levels.

Whatever the venue for the funeral, be it Church, Chapel, Crematorium or anywhere else for that matter, part of my role is to protect that space for those gathered there to mourn – to guard the peace and tranquillity of that environment for however long the funeral ceremony takes. People are there to grapple with profound experiences of love, life & death and for those with faith or religious belief the funeral is of course a deeply spiritual time too. Consequently what nobody wants is to have any intrusion from the outside world during that sacred time. I’m an absolute demon about expecting people to behave considerately and respectfully towards other mourners’ right to experience an atmosphere in which they feel safe to contemplate their loss.

Perhaps surprisingly then, I’m still totally in favour of children attending funerals, IF they’re old enough to express a wish to do so. But parents who bring toddlers or babies to funerals will automatically earn themselves a place in my bad books. You can’t expect an infant to sit in complete silence for half an hour or more, and if the child does start making a racket it’s very unfair on the other mourners. Offending parents can expect a laser beam glare of seething opprobrium from yours truly if they don’t immediately evacuate their noisy offspring outside the building and away from earshot. In fact, with moral and social decline seemingly all around, I’m just waiting for the day I catch my first breast-feeder in the crematorium chapel. 

So I think the article’s right - to be really effective in their respective professions, butlers and funeral directors need to master the art of creating an atmosphere where everyone recognises the gravitas of the occasion.

As an aside, the article’s author finished off by saying that given the hours butlers and funeral directors work, many of the best examples of either profession were often divorced or gay. She may say that; I couldn’t possibly comment!

James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.

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