For Whom the Bell Tolls

I’m going to break cover, come out of the closet, self-identify as a minority of one and publicly admit that I enjoy the build-up to Christmas. I actually like all the tinsel-laden schmaltziness and the unremitting soundtrack of 1970’s and 80’s Christmas Number One’s. During these dark, miserable December evenings it’s nice to see people’s houses and gardens lit up like the Blackpool illuminations – particularly those sterling folks who do it for charity anyway. And every year I look forward to that first appearance of the Christmas Coca-Cola advert on TV. Maybe it’s an inner child thing that I’ve just never grown out of. But why not? What else is there to brighten things up at this time of year? What is there to look forward to apart from January, a month with no redeeming features whatsoever. So, despite the open-mindedness and empathy that 30-odd years in the funeral profession has instilled in me, I’ll admit to struggling with knowing how to relate to people’s dislike of Christmas.

There’s another element to the festive season that I have fond memories of. In these Covid-ridden times it’s becoming increasingly hard to think of large social events ever taking place again; but in years past, right up there amongst other highlights of the social calendar like the Buckingham Palace Garden Party, Royal Ascot and the Henley Regatta, was an altogether more select event: the Gloucester Crematorium Christmas Party, aka the ‘Crem Roast’. Held each year in a tiny rural restaurant out in the boondocks just north of Gloucester, the guest list of the Crem Roast amounted to a Bilderberg Group of the crem’s most regular funeral directors, together with a smattering of favoured clergy (usually the ones who kept their services to schedule and never exceeded their time slot). As an attendee during those sainted years, I can state unequivocally that whilst the Crem Roast wasn’t always a wholly temperate affair (someone nearly fell in the duck pond one year), it never strayed too far from respectability and no-one ever brought disgrace on the funeral profession or the church.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

But even I have my own seasonal nemesis: New Year’s Eve. (Or ‘Old Year’s Night’ if you’re of that persuasion.) New Year’s Eve is the part of the Christmas period that I do have deeply ambivalent feelings about. For a start, no sooner do we cross the finish line of another year, collapsing to our knees and heaving for breath, than we have to confront the dispiriting prospect of setting the meter to zero and starting the marathon all over again. And for me, if not also for many others as well, there’s always a distinct sense of poignancy in looking back at everything that’s happened during the expiring year. The 19th Century essayist Charles Lamb captured it well: “Of all sounds of all bells…most solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the Old Year.”

I can’t help but get sombre and reflective when I think of all the families I’ve encountered during the previous twelve months; and how, as the clock strikes midnight and the planetary calendar re-sets itself, their bereavements are suddenly consigned to history; the immediacy of their loss replaced instead by a cycle of painful new landmarks: the first Christmas without their loved one, the first anniversary of their death, and so on.

So along with getting maudlin, not to mention often being on-call anyway, I rarely celebrate New Year. Instead, when I hear the bangs of the fireworks, or if I happen to catch the chimes of Big Ben on the television, I always mark the moment by giving a thought to the families I’ve worked with during the year. Maybe I’m just trying to keep my karma account in credit, but those people all came to me for help, entrusting me with themselves and their loved ones, and I feel I owe them all a closing thought before the slate is wiped clean and the New Year brings a fresh harvest of sad losses, blessed releases and awful tragedies.

This year though, the Christmas period is going to be anything but normal and there will be a great many people around the country who will have every reason for wishing that Christmas was cancelled; or who will already have had it cancelled for them anyway. I have every sympathy with them and I will be including them in my reflections as I mark the passing of 2020 and everything it brought with it. And then like the rest of the country I shall wait with bated breath for the arrival – or perhaps I should say the onset – of 2021. After the year that 2020 turned out to be, goodness only knows what 2021 is going to bring.

James Baker is a funeral director and the author of ‘A Life In Death – Memoirs of A Cotswold Funeral Director’ (2012) and ‘The Unmourned’ (2020)

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