Stranger's death touches town's heart

March 10, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- It was unexpectedly crowded for that kind of funeral.

More than 40 mourners gathered at St. Peter's Parish Church in Ardingly, but not one of them knew the name of the man they were burying.

Twenty people sent flowers.

None of this was done to mend the collective soul or soothe the anxiety brought upon the nation by the murder of a child several weeks ago in Liverpool. To the people of Ardingly, it was simply the resolution of a very specific tragedy that they chose to involve themselves in quite a while back.

For 17 months, they had striven to rescue John Doe from the peculiar ignominy of that anonymous burial Friday -- the police, the coroner's office, even the local newspapers.

But they failed. In the end they knew little more about him than they did that day he was found hanging from a tree near the railway tracks without identification,with nothing on him even to give a clue to his identity.

All the people of that village of 1,600 near Brighton knew was that he was 19 or 20 years old, that he was French and that he had taken his own life.

His nationality had been determined by two things. Yvonne Sheppard, a French speaker from nearby Hand Cross, met him on his last day, beside a road near the village of Balcombe. She had a conversation with him in that tongue and thought he came from northern France. Forensic experts extracted a French-made silver crown from his mouth.

It would have been odd enough for the people in a little village such as Ardingly to open up to a stranger, which is not to suggest that it is an unfriendly place. But to a foreigner? And a suicide?

Yet, somehow, he touched them.

"People were involved from the beginning," said Beth Symmons, the wife of the local vicar. "It hit them very hard. They have waved their own kids off with rucksacks on their backs, never knowing what might happen to them. Many of them just wanted to be there [at the funeral]; they wanted to show they cared."

His presence affected quite a lot of people. It triggered a kind of benign conspiracy among officials involved in the case of the young man who, according to David Spence, the British Transit Police inspector charged with the investigation, "initially cut his wrists, intentionally, then walked toward a railway track where he hung himself from a tree."

William Hopkins of the coroner's office kept the body preserved for a year and a half while the search for the man's family went on in Britain and across Europe, with no success. When the time came to resolve the situation, the coroner let it be known that he wanted a burial, not a cremation.

Others agreed. They wanted something to be there, a body in a grave in case the family appeared. This became important to all involved in the case. The trouble was by law the local council could pay only for a cremation.

Enter Roy Brooks, the Sussex funeral director who volunteered his staff, hearse and expertise. Why?

"Because I've got kids of my own," he said. "But we weren't the only ones. Other people took an interest."

The Rev. Rod Symmons, the vicar at St. Peter's, offered the plot in the little cemetery across from his 14th century church. He volunteered to do the service but didn't expect much of an affair.

"I envisaged just me and him [the dead man] and the funeral director," he said.

But then people began to arrive. Lots of people for such a little town, and on a weekday. Not just the mortuary employees recruited by Mr. Brooks, not just the staff of the coroner's office, not just the police brought by Inspector Spence, who had first approached Mr. Symmons and encouraged him to offer his services and a space in the graveyard.

"He died in the parish I live in," Inspector Spence said. "I just thought I should do my Christian duty."

Mrs. Sheppard, probably the last person he had spoken to, and in his own language, came. And the young man who had found him was there. And others.

"It captured people's imagination," Mr. Symmons said. And maybe it stirred their fears as well.

"I think there were quite a lot of families there who had youngsters in the 19 age group, who identified with him," the clergyman said.

There was organ music and hymns. The vicar gave a sermon about how life had to be lived amid so many troubling questions, the primary one in this case still unanswered: Just who was this young man they were praying over? The coffin bore a metal plate. It read:

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Unknown Male .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Died 26 July .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ... 1991 There wasn't much to say about him, since so little was known. There is no stone on the grave, though Mr. Brooks promises one when more is learned about the dead man -- and even if it is not.

"We'll bear the cost of that, too," he said.

Still, Mr. Symmons thinks the most important human need was served. On that dry, chilly day under gray Sussex skies, people came to mourn an anonymous man, to stand as his surrogate family.

"When and if the family is traced," Mr. Symmons said, "there will be a record that we were there."

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