Jim’s in a dead-end job - but he wouldn’t have it any other way
IT may be a dead-end job, but, as the saying goes, someone’s got to do it.
After a life-time spent dealing with dead bodies and grieving families, at 75 years old Jim Bell shows no sign of vacuum-packing his mourning attire and stashing it in the attic just yet.
For most of us, the job of a funeral director is a macabre, yet fascinating one, but not really in the sunny ‘Top 10’ of career choices today.
But for Jim, who is still very much the heartbeat of the long established and respected family business first started by his grandfather in Newry Street, Banbridge, in the 1800s, he can’t really imagine doing anything else.
Being a funeral director may owe more to vocation than vaulting ambition and certainly the septuagenarian’s sympathetic, gentle personality means he is ideally suited to the profession to which, in the end, we all must defer.
Whether that means being buried in your wedding dress, clergy robes or football kit with a bottle of whiskey or favourite CD by your side, Mr Bell senior will do his best to accommodate your final wishes.
There is, however, one thing he will refuse - and that is a mobile phone placed in your coffin with you. Chatting between appointments in the office of his Kenlis Street funeral parlour, he shakes his head at the very thought of such an unseemly request.
In fact, ever the pragmatist, Jim is never apart from his own mobile phone and carries it with him ‘24/7’, but the idea of someone ringing the Dear Departed is not a sense of humour he readily shares.
“You do have to have a sense of humour in this business, but you also have to have respect, dignity and sensitivity,” he says. “Sometimes you have to draw a line.”
Mobile phones can be a bit of a nightmare at funerals generally, it seems, and Jim’s son Maurice, who is also involved in the business, recounts a story where a funeral director in England accidently dropped his handset into a coffin and it began to ring rather loudly during the ill-fated funeral service.
Thankfully, no such mishaps have ever befallen William Bell and Co. where Jim and staff strive to make the most distressing of life events bearable for those left behind.
He may have his official embalming examination - theory and practical tests - successfully completed (the certificates are mounted on the wall behind his desk) but sometimes finding the right words at the right time just comes down to being naturally tuned in to people’s innate needs and circumstances.
“Understanding and sympathy have to be sincerely felt and expressed, but you do have to find an emotional detachment in order to be professional and help people get through this period,” he says. “I find my faith really carries me through the bad times - particularly when a baby has died or a young person has lost his life in a car accident.
“I don’t think there is an undertaker alive who is not particularly moved when they have to deal with the funeral of a baby. Those memories always remain with you.”
He has personal experience of that particular type of heartache, having had to arrange the funerals of many babies and young people over the years. Those that stand out in poignancy include the funeral of the two-day old daughter of Lance Corporal Stephen McKee from Banbridge who was killed in Afghanistan in March, 2011.
“There have been many, many sad days, but I think those two funerals were two of the worst for me,” he says. “Little did I know that after the funeral of little Keeley that her daddy would be having his own funeral a year later. It was one of the biggest funerals Banbridge has ever seen.
“It is especially difficult when you know the people; it can drain you emotionally. You never forget those people, but you have to walk on. It is like walking through a door into a different world.”
He has also laid to rest many security forces personnel killed during the Troubles, most notably Northern Ireland’s highest ranking police officer, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, and, on a more personal level, the husband of his own children’s babysitter, Alan Baird, blown up by an IRA bomb while travelling in a police Landrover near Bessbrook in 1979.
Not all funerals are local and Jim has travelled far and wide to arrange details for the final resting place of those who in life may have lived far from Banbridge, but in death felt a need to return home.
“That is what I always find,” he adds, “no matter how far people wander, or where they set up home, or how long they have lived abroad, they usually have left instructions that they want to come ‘home’ when they die.”
There is no doubt his is a challenging, introspective job at times, but sometimes there are lighter moments: “Once we were in Dublin wearing our big black coats and we were mistaken for members of the Christian Brothers,” he chuckles, adding more seriously that he has a cordial relationship with all the local clergy, whatever their religious leanings, and should his life have taken a different path he would have liked to have entered the ministry himself.
“As it is, my duties include co-ordinating with the local clergy and smoothing the way for the family; basically alleviating their burden where I can.
“I genuinely like helping people, regardless of what church they go to or even if they don’t go to a church at all. I think you definitely need to like helping people to do this job.”
You may think that with such a solemn line of work that a little levity would be in order for the sake of counter-balance, but Jim - last year’s winner of the Banbridge Leader Lifetime Achievement Award - likes to while away many a leisurely hour wandering around graveyards.
“My family ‘lost’ me for a while during a holiday in the Lake District once,” says the man who, on seeing his first dead body as a teenager fled the hospital building but was persuaded back by his father, James. “They found me in a graveyard in the village of Grasmere, looking at the grave of William Wordsworth. I like reading the different inscriptions on headstones.”
It would be unfair, however, to suggest, that laments occupy his thoughts all of the time and Jim is an enthusiastic patron of the theatre, particularly lively West End musicals. He also confesses to being an even more enthusiastic supporter of Arsenal Football Club given half a chance.
As for his own arrangements, he has, as you would expect, everything in order. “I have it all planned out - the service, burial and headstone,” he reveals, half-cheerily, half in earnest. “I have studied a lot of gravestone inscriptions, but mine will just be something plain and simple. That is how I like it.”
And, is there a date set for his well-earned retirement? No, not even a vague notion of one: “I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing until the Good Lord himself decides to retire me.”