Jonathan Riley-Smith was a distinguished historian, perhaps the most eminent contemporary historian of the Crusades, but of all his achievements, not the least was the way he died.
It wouldn’t be true to say of him that nothing in life became him like the leaving of it, but in the last three years of his life since being diagnosed with terminal cancer he put his mind to the business of dying in a way that was quite remarkable.
I had known him since I returned to Cambridge in the late 1990s to do a PhD and attended his seminar on the First Crusade, which was great fun. Indeed, I can thank him for my PhD in that he was one of my two examiners – and a cheerful, hospitable and interested one at that.
He was a great bear of a man: trenchant but enormously kind. And over the last few years I visited him when I was in Cambridge and liked him enormously. Every so often I would badger him by email about journalistic things, most recently for his reaction to the Pope’s response to the murder of the unfortunate French priest at the altar of his church; he was rather forthright about that and I duly quoted him in the piece I wrote. Sometimes what you need is the perspective of a medievalist.
He was entirely open about his condition, and so I had no compunction about badgering him to write about dying for the Evening Standard. Even though he was in a hospice at the time, he was terrifically reactive and productive and did what I wanted. He called his piece “A Letter from the Dying to the Dying”. It didn’t get into the Standard, though I had it in reserve, waiting for the perfect opportunity to put it in (let that be a lesson to us all).
But it did get published elsewhere after his death. And it also featured in the wonderful sermon at his Requiem Mass by Fr Alban McCoy, who had been with him a couple of hours before he died. That’s the first time I have ever commissioned from a writer material for his own funeral Mass. And as Fr Alban observed, in his 43 years as a priest he had never encountered anyone who was more internally composed and outwardly prepared for death.
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