A black hearse is making its slow progress down the paved central aisle of The East London Cemetery. Inside is a coffin draped in the Union Jack, surrounded by sprays of flowers. As it passes the line of 50 mourners, a familiar military command rings out across the graveyard: “A-ten-shun!”
Almost as one, the line of mourners facing the hearse snap to attention, as the man standing opposite them salutes. After the coffin passes and comes to a halt, he bids them to stand at ease. “This is quite something,” the man murmurs quietly to himself as he surveys his men. “This is quite something.”
The scene might bear all the hallmarks of a formal military funeral, but Ian Douglas, the man the mourners have gathered to remember, was not a serving soldier. For many years, he relied upon the charity Veterans Aid to provide him with food and a place to live, leaning heavily on the kindness of its staff. That care continued until the day of his death at the end of November.
The man saluting him is Dr Hugh Milroy, a former RAF Wing Commander who is now the charity’s CEO. The mourners are the charity’s clients and former clients, some of whom were at one stage sleeping rough on the streets until they called on Veterans Aid for help.
It is a testament to the work of the charity – one of two being supported by The Independent’s appeal this Christmas – that around half of those in attendance had to take the day off work to pay their respects to Mr Douglas. An onlooker would never be able to guess that many were once homeless.
As far as the charity knows Mr Douglas did not have any relatives, so it took care of the bill for his funeral and invited everyone who had come into contact with him to attend. Sadly, it is not the first time that the charity has paid for the burial of one of its clients, although such occasions are rare.
“You come here on your own – but you do not leave here on your own,” as Dr Milroy puts it in his address to the mourners at a reception later, held at the charity’s New Belvedere House hostel in Stepney, East London, where Mr Douglas was a long-time resident.
Most of the hostel’s residents move on after finding their feet again, but Mr Douglas was a special case. On one occasion he was moved to a hospital in Kent, which he hated so much that he walked back to the hostel in his pajamas, a journey which took him several days. The staff cared for him there ever since.
“We were his family in every sense,” says Dr Milroy. “That’s a very military thing – a strong community and a bond that we’ve all served – and you can see it from the amazing turnout we’ve had today. The boys wanted to do it properly, they wanted to salute him on his way out. We were not letting him go without dignity – he was treated the same as everyone else.”
One of the mourners at the funeral was The Dowager Viscountess Rothermere, who became Veterans Aid’s first patron in 2013 having been a long-time supporter of the charity’s work. She is also a regular visitor to New Belvedere House. “I can’t think of many other people that have had a Viscountess at their funeral, but Ian did,” says Dr Milroy.
One of the mourners is Steven Pyatt, a former resident of the hostel who now lives in Essex. He remembers Mr Douglas as “a quiet guy” who appreciated everything the charity did for him. “He felt safe here,” he says simply. “He knew he was loved.”
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