Funeral procession in Totnes highlights plight of rough sleepers
The cardboard coffin of a homeless man was carried through the centre of Totnes to draw attention to the plight of a rising number of people sleeping rough in the Westcountry.
Michael Gething was found dead in a sleeping bag beside the town's Methodist church last month. He is believed to have died from hypothermia.
The 41-year-old's death has polarised opinion across the South Devon community, with many residents calling for more sheltered accommodation to be made available and others arguing that greater support would only exacerbate the problem.
On Thursday around 150 people walked in silence behind Mr Gething's coffin as it was carried up Fore Street and through Totnes's famous archway. Leading the mourners were his father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle and other family members. Standing with dignity beside his son's coffin, David Gething explained that Michael had chosen a lifestyle alien to most people.
"This is a very sad day for all the family," he said. "Michael spent 24 years drifting up and down the Westcountry. I have been on to him for years to change his lifestyle but he always said he was quite happy living that way."
Mr Gething said that despite the difficulties, he had maintained a good relationship with his son, adding: "This is the way he chose to live his life. He was quiet and friendly and never had a bad word to say about anybody, but he never worked and couldn't settle down anywhere."
The high-profile funeral was the idea Graham Walker, who held a 48-hour vigil in honour of his friend. Dressed in top hat and white bow tie, Mr Walker delivered a moving eulogy, calling on everyone in Totnes to "hold out a hand to the homeless".
"During this vigil I have been really touched by the compassion of people in Totnes," he said. "When people see a homeless person they have three options: to ignore, to condemn, or to understand. I hope that as a result of Michael's death, more people in the town will choose to understand and hopefully help them."
The ceremony was conducted by Rupert Callendar of the Green Funeral Company. In a statement read to the gathering, he said there were "no heroes and no villains" associated with the tragedy.
"Michael had a family who loved him," he said. "Government agencies, churches and charities had all helped him and continued to try to help him, but he wasn't always ready to be helped.
"The purpose of today is to remember that Michael was part of our community and to say that the homeless aren't a different species from the rest of us, but people whose lives have fallen apart."
South Hams District Council was one of the agencies that helped him on numerous occasions. Yesterday, the authority's communications manager, Alison Stoneham, said: "Our thoughts are with Mr Gething's family and friends. He was offered advice, assistance and accommodation by us, but he did not take up the place. He was also offered help with getting together a deposit and rent for private accommodation but did not take up this offer."
Mrs Stoneham said the council was committed to the Government's "No Second Night Out" policy, adding: "We would urge members of the public who know of someone rough sleeping in the South Hams to call our hotline on 0800 151 3441."