Rivers’ death was a shock to students, colleagues and friends alike, more than he would possibly have guessed. Fred Bartlett summed up the feeling of disbelief*
“ On June 3, I went to College, intent on a game of some sort. I met Rivers on the steps of the New Court. He was happy, cheerful, off for one of his quick walks of those days. Next midday I was passing St. John’s and saw the flag at half-mast. I called at the Porter’s Lodge. They said: ‘Dr. Rivers is dead.’ Sightseers were everywhere among the Cambridge Colleges, gazing, joking, laughing; the sun was brilliant; the spring colours were shining. To me, and to many more, it all seemed silly, irrelevant, far away: Rivers was dead…There seemed no sense to it, for Rivers who was my friend and counsellor had gone”
Several hundred, if not a thousand, attended the funeral, held at St John’s church. It was ‘elaborate’, according to reports – not in expense, for that was never the doctor’s way, but in style. Rivers, through his anthropological studies had become somewhat of an expert in the funerary rites of the Melanesian tribes and thus, his own service reflected what he had learnt. Sadly, no one seems to have recorded exactly what this involved at the time and nobody has apparently written of it since. Slobodin tells that Rivers’ coffin was carried through St John’s, just as the body of a noted person might be paraded through his home village or settlement on the island. This would have been tricky since it meant travelling through the tight corridors of the college, and over the even narrower ‘Bridge of Sighs’** that spans the Cam as the doctor was taken to his resting place. One can almost sense his amusement.
The burial was at St Giles cemetery, just outside the main city. Siegfried Sassoon was so overcome as the coffin was lowered that he collapsed. It is astonishing to learn that for a long period, until recent years, the grave stood unattended and was falling into disrepair – so much so that the author could not find it upon visiting in the late 1990s and had to leave a tribute by the caretaker’s building – but finally a group of students located it around five years ago and have since cleaned and repainted the celtic cross which simply states his name and that he was a fellow of St John’s. Not much for a man whose breadth of work traversed medicine, psychotherapy, Ethnology and anthropology – yet startlingly apt for a doctor whose modest honesty saw little attraction in drawing attention to himself.
* Bartlett, F. Cambridge, England 1887-1937, 1937
** The bridge is styled and named after that in Venice, Italy – supposedly because it was on the route that students, in the early years of the college, would take to their exams