Funerals and remembering
Today I went to the funeral of my friend John House, an art historian who worked on Monet (inter alios). I had met him sometime in the early 1980s, at a party given by a couple of friends in London (him and her) -- one of those parties you still vividly remember a few decades later, even if you cant remember exactly what year it was. If you'd have told us then that, all these years down the line, we'd end up shedding a tear at each other funerals, we wouldn't have believed you.
John was only 66 (and yes, if you'd have told us then that one day we would be saying "only 66" we wouldn't have believed you either). He apparently had a heart attack while taking the cat to the vet -- which for him, I guess, must have been as good a way to go as you could hope for. For anyone close to him, it was a complete knockout, a bolt from the blue. (Everyone was talking about when they last saw him -- for me it was at the opening of the Hockney exhibition, and indeed he was one of the people I met who had the most caustic things to say about 'late Hockney').
Anyway, especially in the circumstances, it was a brilliantly choreographed and very moving farewell... a cremation first, followed directly by a thanksgiving in a stunningly restored Victorian church, St Stephen's, near Belsize Park tube station. A church, but there was no God (instead of the Lord's prayer, there was a passage of the younger Seneca). And the wine didn't only follow, it also accompanied the proceedings -- so thay everyone could toast John from their chairs as we finished the formal proceedings (this was actually a bit of a bummer for me and the husband as we have given up the demon drink for our non-religious Lent... and we dont get an indulgence on day 2, even for a funeral).
John hadn't exactly been a meat and two veg, feet up in front of the tv, kind of guy. But the frankly tumultuous private life was all part of the occasion. There were warm tributes both from his ex-wife and from his current partner...both of them said that he could occasionally be absolutely infuriating; and I bet there were a few broken hearts having a quiet weep when Buddy Holly ("Every Day . . . Love like yours will surely come my way") filled the church.
But there were two especially memorable moments for me. The first came from John's niece, who read straight-faced a quasi-scientific account of John's favourite animal, the hippopotamus... it wasn't long before most of the audience had twigged that this was actually a pretty good description of John himself... larger than life, noisy, exuberant, and very keen on lady hippos. Then finally his nephew captured the totally compelling enthusiasm, the "interestedness", the kindness and the occasional sheer silliness of the guy -- from trekking round Victorian churches, photographing everything in sight, to cherishing a new pair of cheap hippopotamus socks. Not to mention calling a spade a spade... he was, the nephew fondly recalled, the first person he'd ever met who actually called "shit" "shit".
After all this a gallery of photos appeared on the screen (tiny glimpse of the young lecturer House on the right), to the accompaniment of more drink, at least for the non-abstinent. And then most of us, I suspect, went away still not really having taken in the fact that he was actually dead.
Oh yes, let's be honest, wondering who would be next.