Eulogy for John Caspell

We are gathered here on this day to celebrate the life and mourn the death of John Caspell.

I want to thank all those of you who have come a long way and made sacrifices to give us the privilege of your presence today.  It’s a tired truism that funerals are for the living.  Let us live this day so that we are honouring each other in a great and meaningful ceremony.  Let us in our speech and deeds be good to one another, for each of us in this room is carrying this death in their own hearts, and seeing the loss reflected in the sadness of people we love.

I hope that the songs and stories you hear, and voice, today, will help you in healing.  It is a good thing to have your loss publicly acknowledged, to reflect on the meaning and value of a single human life, and to learn that there is healing in laughter as well.  For John Caspell was a very cheerful and funny man, and we should remember that about him too.


John wasn’t just big in terms of size, although he sure seemed to be as big as a house if you came across him unexpectedly.  He had a big heart, a big voice, a big capacity for work, a bigger capacity for verbal play and tomfoolery of all sorts, a big conscience and two big hands which after thirty years of martial arts training he only had to use once in his own defence, not counting when he was sparring.

He had an astonishing grasp of politics, geography, history, classical economics, scientific advances, contemporary literary and hard SF, folk music, motorcycle technology – and chess, and I regret those are only the subjects I know about.  I know I’ve left some out.  He never stopped using his university education — he had a bachelor’s in History – not one day in his grown life.  He was passionate about social justice in theory and practice, and had no qualms about getting up in the face of anyone whom he believed to be practicing inequality or bigotry, or hurting those who couldn’t defend themselves, people or animals.

Which is not to say that he was a saint.  He was certainly in many ways a more ascetic person than most, but he wasn’t very saintly.   As a youngster he had a terrifying temper – karate helped provide him with the tools and discipline he needed to bring it under firm control.  As an adult, his ability to speak with dispassionate candour on almost any subject was interpreted by some folks as tactlessness.  But anybody who really knew him knew that malice simply wasn’t part of his makeup.  He was a very softhearted guy, and you didn’t have to know him long to learn that.

Anybody who watched him lie on the floor to coax a cat out from under a sofa; anybody who watched him turn himself into loud, mobile playground furniture for his nieces and nephews, and anybody who saw him sit with rapt attention during a concert or live performance would know that he had a big heart.  He had many gifts.  His ability to identify, and his capacity to enjoy, the many parts of human life which made him happy, was immense, and it was his biggest gift to the people around him.

He was a devoted and dutiful son, a loving and helpful sibling and near relative, a trustworthy employee, a fine musician, a good co-worker, an intelligent and hard working musical collaborator and a good friend.  He was not a bad cook, either, although he rarely turned down the chance to eat somebody else’s cooking.  His shepherd’s pie was tasty, and he made great spaghetti sauce.

It’s amazing, for the all the demonstrations he went to, that he was arrested just the once.  The only comment he could be prodded into making, afterwards, was, “You should never shoplift when you’re hungry.”

Many times over the course of his life he shifted his priorities around so that he could help his friends and family.  Most times when he did that, he made the best of it — combining it with a motorcycle trip or a convention, taking the opportunity to go to a museum, park or monument, getting in a visit with other friends or relatives.  But if he had to get up in the middle of the night to help somebody, he’d do it.  His family was very important to him, but he treated his chosen family of filkers and Unitarians with the same love, care and bad puns that he treated his family of birth.

Woven through John’s life were martial arts, music and motorcycles.  Martial arts provided him with a series of ever moving goals, throughout his adult life. Most people who take up martial arts are dilettantes compared to John; John went to Okinawa to study under the master of his form (goju ryu, pronounced goju ru) which means hard/soft in Japanese.  His six weeks in Okinawa taught him a great deal about himself and Karate, and everyone who knew him admired his dedication to his art and his drive in accomplishing his goal and enjoyed the stories he brought home with him.

Music.  It’s not possible to talk of John’s life in any meaningful way without speaking of music.  Raised in a household full of music, both classical and contemporary, by a mother who loved to sing, he made his own way in terms of his taste and interests, and never allowed whether a group or musician was popular or not to bend his taste one way or the other.

What John appreciated was heartfelt musicianship in professionals, and sheer exhilaration of performance in amateurs.  He deplored, loudly and often, the tendency in modern culture to act as if music was a product to be consumed rather than a pastime and passion to be shared, communally if at all possible.  His housemates soon learned that his hard won skill at guitar and his immense trove of songs was a result of a very consistent practice regime, daily when he didn’t have too many other commitments, but whenever he could, and often.

To speak of John without mentioning his sense of humour, which came close to being unquenchable, would be very remiss.  His loud laugh and his acrobatic word play were legendary among his friends and family.  His finely honed sense of the absurdity, his spontaneity, and his willingness to be the butt as well as author of jokes was also noteworthy.  When we think of John, it isn’t hard to smile, even as we realize just how much we’ll miss that.

John owned many cats over the course of his life.  He leaves behind a cat named Vincent, currently living with Douglas and Juliana McCorison in Victoria.

He owned many motorcycles in his life.  His last motorcycle was a Suzuki, but he had owned a Ducati, for which he had a special repair tool welded up (called ‘the friendly persuader’), and for many years owned a BMW touring bike, which he named Heinrich.  After 40 years of riding safely, including transcontinental jaunts and daily commuting in Vancouver, he was struck on his motorcycle by a person driving an SUV, and died as a consequence of his injuries.  His best friend and musical partner Brooke Abbey was there when he passed.

It is hard to lose a loved one.  John himself was very philosophical about death.  He was not convinced he would make old bones, but he didn’t spend a minute worrying about it, instead living life to the fullest, and encouraging others to do the same by example and support.  He was always prepared to be surprised, delighted, and fascinated by life and art and whatever environment he found himself in.  May we all learn to do likewise.

(edited and corrected May 2020)

Leave a Reply