I went to a funeral yesterday, for a family friend, who cruelly lost his fight with cancer. Not surprisingly, it was a very emotional experience – Dave was a lifelong Liverpool supporter, and the playing of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and The Beatles’ ‘In My Life’ were enough in themselves to bring a lump to my throat. I also felt somewhat emotionally raw because I was tired and hungover from an evening out on the previous night, a night of which I’m sure Dave would have approved.
(Interestingly, I’ve noticed during years of exhaustive research that a hangover is often followed by a stage of mild euphoria. I’ve now come to the conclusion that it’s related to the gradual receding of the symptoms, and the dawning realisation that, whilst you may feel bad, you’re not actually going to die.)
Despite the fact that I had to stop singing ‘Jerusalem’ halfway through (a hymn that makes me cry at the best of times), it was a lovely service. The minister talked very kindly and frankly about Dave, his family, and his illness. There was also a fine reading, and during it I started to wonder what I might choose for my own funeral. I’ve continued to think about it since then, but still genuinely have no idea. The only criteria I can come up with (as with my wedding) would for it not to be religious; I’ve never had a faith, and to fall back on something at the end of my life which I never felt I needed during it strikes me as cowardly in the extreme.
When the vicar moved on to read the eulogy, a phrase from near its end hit me as though with a physical blow – ‘death is but a horizon‘. At the time, I thought it was one of the loveliest and truest things I’d ever heard, and still do – as soon as I got back to my car I made a note, so I wouldn’t forget it. I found out later (courtesy of Professors Google and Wikipedia) that it was written in the 19th century by American poet Rossiter W. Raymond (a singular guy himself, if his Wikipedia entry is anywhere near accurate). The first half of his poem is an appeal direct to God, which I find moving but less striking. But it’s the second that is particularly compelling:
Life is eternal; and love is immortal; and death is only a horizon; and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.
Writing this now, I still don’t know what reading I would have at my funeral. It would have to be something that I love; and something which surprised me; and probably something that made me laugh, as that has always mattered to me. When I think about all of these things, and funerals, I’m reminded of the opening of Iain Banks’ The Crow Road, which begins with the immortal line ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’
Banks is of course another man who is facing up to the horizon, and I was taken aback on hearing the news about his illness a fortnight ago. It made me reflect on what a great writer he is, and how much he’s meant to me over the last twenty-plus years, in particular during my teens. I saw him speak in Birmingham in 2011, when as a favour to the chair of the local Science Fiction group he came and spoke at the Library Theatre, and answered questions from the audience. The programme for the evening reprinted this terrific piece by Banks, which he’d written for the Guardian only a few weeks previously.
In it, Banks’ focus is science fiction, but his words apply to any genre, including my own first love, crime. I’ll resist the temptation to quote it in full, but the penultimate paragraph is as good a piece of writing advice as I’ve ever heard:
‘In the end, writing about what you know – that hoary and potentially limiting, even stultifying piece of advice – might be best seen as applying to the type of story you’re thinking of writing rather than to the details of what happens within it and perhaps, with that in mind, a better precept might be to write about what you love, rather than what you have a degree of contempt for but will deign to lower yourself to, just to show the rest of us how it’s done.’
If you do write about what you love, that seems to me to be enough. Banks clearly does, and when he disappears over the horizon his work – if not perhaps immortal – will continue to be loved and read for a long time to come.