Hundreds gather in Lytham, Lancashire for cremation of Harold Jellicoe Percival, who died in nursing home, aged 99
It began with a tiny notice placed by undertakers in a Lancashire newspaper: “Harold died peacefully in Alistre Lodge Nursing Home on 25th October 2013, aged 99 years. A single man, he has no close family who can attend his funeral. Served in RAF Bomber Command as ground crew in world war two. Any service personnel who can attend his funeral service would be appreciated.”
The notice was picked up last Friday by Sgt Rick Clement, who lost both of his legs in Afghanistan in 2010. “Need a big favour from any military or ex serving members …” began his tweet.
The appeal went viral. By the time the dead soldier’s cremation took place on Monday, Roland L Whitehead and Daughter funeral directors had received calls and flowers from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and beyond from people sending their regards to an old man they had never met.
When the clock struck 11am, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, at least 300 strangers had turned up in the rain at Lytham crematorium to make sure that Harold Jellicoe Percival – aka Coe – was not laid to rest alone.
Eighty-year-old Bernard Worsfold could not quite believe his eyes. Chair of the local RAF veterans’ association, a week ago he thought he might be one of the only mourners. He did not know Percival, but he had agreed to attend after being asked by the funeral home planning Percival’s cremation, who feared his passing would go unmarked.
“I thought I’d be one of perhaps six people,” said Worsfold. “I never expected this.”
As the vicar put it: “We marvel at the power of the printed word, whether on paper or on screen.”
The Rev Alan Clark then quoted John Donne: “No man is an island / Entire of itself / Every man is a piece of the continent / A part of the main.”
Uniformed veterans, teenage air cadets and serving soldiers joined members of the public, including a lad in wellies from a nearby carwash. One man, his jacket heavy with medals, clutched his toddler tightly, thumbing away tears as Lytham Community Choir sang Jerusalem. Clement was there, too, in his wheelchair.
So few people were expected that the pallbearers had been considering staying in the chapel to make up the numbers. But on the day, it was standing room only in the crematorium, with well over 200 mourners left outside.
As Percival was laid to rest on Armistice Day, mourners in Lytham joined millions across the country in two minutes silence before the service began. About 4,000 people stopped in Trafalgar Square in London for a service organised by the Royal British Legion.
Initially, no family members were expected to attend Percival’s funeral. He never married or had children. He was, said the vicar, “a very private person – something of a nomad, carrying his possessions in a rucksack”. But after the appeal …read more