The Key Thing to Remember

Jun 10, 2015
The Key Thing to Remember You might be familiar with the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling; the one that says if you can keep your head when everyone about you is losing theirs and blaming it on you…, and if you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat them both the same…, then yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, and what’s more, you'll be a man, my son.

The 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 genuine mistakes.   

I 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 overseeing events.   

There 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 staff.   

The 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.   

The 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.   

I 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. 

“Have all the other bearers gone off to the crem?” He whispered urgently. 

“Yeeees,” I said, instantly sensing trouble looming. 

“But I put everyone’s car keys in the glove box of the bearers’ vehicle because I thought they’d be safe in there!” 

I 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…   

After 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 frosty journey…   

So, to re-write Kipling’s poem for him:   

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, 

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”

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