Burying a Great Train Robber: Sometimes, Vicar, you should tell it like it is

Gangster royalty was out in force to send off Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds last week. Harry Mount says the best funeral addresses tell the untarnished truth

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The Rev Dr Martin Dudley, Rector of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, east London, is no stranger to fame. Hugh Grant dumped Duckface in his chancel, the best bit of Norman architecture in London. St Bartholomew's provided a convincing medieval setting, too, for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Shakespeare in Love and The Other Boleyn Girl.

But Dr Dudley could never have come up against such infamy in his priory church as he did last week for the funeral of Bruce Reynolds, the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery, which took place almost exactly 50 years ago.

It's getting close to last call in the celestial departure lounge for the chieftains of 1960s East End gangland. Both Kray twins are dead, as is their brother, Charlie. Two surviving Great Train Robbers at the funeral were confined to wheelchairs, including Ronnie Biggs, 83, who still managed a spirited V-sign for photographers. The last vestiges of the criminal aristocracy were there, too, including the old Kray associates, Freddie "Brown Bread" Foreman and Chris Lambrianou.

If Dr Dudley wanted to keep his legs attached to his body, then, he had to box clever with his funeral address. And the cleric played a blinder, right in the grand old tradition of euphemistic funeral tributes for ruthless rogues.

He opened with a quote from the most weasel-worded funeral tribute ever written – "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him" – and went on to give Reynolds an access-all-areas pass to heaven: "A man is not defined by one act. There is always the bigger picture." How the bullet-headed old crooks in the congregation must have lapped it all up. Safe to say, Dr Dudley won't be propping up a motorway bridge on the M1 any time soon.

And so the praise rolled on for a thug who, remember, led a gang which coshed Jack Mills, the train driver, so badly that he died from his injuries seven years later. That didn't stop the oleaginous tributes, not only to the thug, but also to his very thuggishness. His son, Nick Reynolds, said that his father used to refer to the crime as his Sistine Chapel.

The great and the good joined in with the flesh-creeping love-in. The actor David Thewlis, who befriended Reynolds when he was making the film Gangster No. 1, spoke of the affinity between thieves and actors: "Thieves are, by necessity, great actors," he said. Crime writer Jake Arnott talked of Reynolds quoting William Burroughs's line, "Steal everything in sight." The punk poet John Cooper Clarke read his new poem "Lines Upon the Death of Mr Bruce Reynolds", closing with the line: "RIP Gentleman Thief".

The funeral euphemism has been around for a long time. The Latin phrase, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum dicendum est ("Don't say anything about the dead except for good things") goes back further than the Romans, to around 600BC, when one of the Seven Sages of Greece, Chilon of Sparta, said, "Don't talk badly about a dead man."

The ancient Greeks made an art of the funeral address. Its chief exponent was the Athenian leader, Pericles, whose best-known speech was his funeral oration in 430BC, given in honour of his soldiers killed in action. It is one of Boris Johnson's favourite speeches: "For of illustrious men, the whole earth is the sepulchre. Far more grievous, to a man of high spirit at least, is the misery which accompanies cowardice, than the unfelt death which comes upon him at once, in the time of his strength and of his hope for the common welfare."

There's little need for euphemism, though, in a homily for dead war heroes. Abraham Lincoln would have had a tougher time putting together the Gettysburg Address if the Union dead had been Great Train Robbers.

The art of the euphemism for the not-so-saintly departed has been perfected in the last couple of decades in the newspaper obituary – particularly in the hallowed style of the late Hugh Massingberd, still the presiding spirit of the modern obituary.

Massingberd, obituaries editor of the Telegraph from 1986 to 1994, created the obituary euphemism from two serendipitous circumstances: you can't libel the dead; but you shouldn't be rude about them, either, while they're still warm in the ground. This magical combination of factors produced the high comedy of smuggling in an insult beneath the see-through disguise of anodyne praise.

Massingberd composed his own glossary of euphemistic praise for the dead: "Convivial" – habitually drunk; "Did not suffer fools gladly" – monstrously foul-tempered; "Gave colourful accounts of his exploits" – a liar; "A man of simple tastes" – a complete vulgarian; "A powerful negotiator" – a bully; "Relished the cadences of the English language" – an incorrigible windbag"; "Relished physical contact" – a sadist; "An uncompromisingly direct ladies' man" – a flasher.

It is no surprise that Massingberd was an accomplished giver of funeral addresses, too. The best I've ever heard was the one he gave for the novelist Anthony Powell at the Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair. Massingberd knew the essential truth of funeral speeches, that laughter lies close to tears; that, to make someone laugh with an utterly characteristic memory of a dead loved one, is to bring them to life more vividly than via sombre, boilerplate praise.

Massingberd opened by saying, "The late Frankie Howerd – who personified Anthony Powell's maxim that melancholy should be taken for granted in anyone with a true gift for comedy – used to preface his patter with 'Welcome, my brethren, to the Eisteddfod'."

And he went on to tell Powell's favourite funeral story, of a Norfolk parson officiating in a church not his own. The vicar arrived early to have a look round. Above one tomb, he spotted a medieval iron helmet and, since there was time to kill, tried it on. Putting on the armour was easy enough; taking it off impossible. And so, when the mourners and the coffin arrived, they were, in Powell's words, "surprised to be received by a cleric wearing a knight's bascinet". The priest duly pronounced the burial service; Powell always wondered whether he "contrived to lift the vizor" to conduct the ceremony.

Massingberd's speech was at Powell's memorial service, rather than his funeral, and Powell died full of years. Things are different, of course, at the funeral of somebody young. Then is not the time for comedy – although the odd funny reminiscence still carries added emotional freight.

The most famous funeral speech of modern times – Earl Spencer's for his sister, Diana, Princess of Wales, at Westminster Abbey – drew its power from the agony of raw grief. Lord Spencer discussed his sister in a way he never would have done when she was alive:

"For all the status, the glamour, the applause, Diana remained throughout a very insecure person at heart, almost childlike in her desire to do good for others, so she could release herself from deep feelings of unworthiness, of which her eating disorders were merely a symptom."

Euphemism has become the convenient doublespeak of the funeral address – let's all agree not to tell the truth, goes the traditional line. Best man's speeches are the right occasion for fantasy and anecdotage; funeral addresses demand more of the speaker – they demand the truth, untarnished by the veneer of showbiz gangsterism.

How England Made the English by Harry Mount is published by Viking

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