Roger Bowers has organised thousands of services in more than 50 years as a funeral director, but he will never forget the bitterly cold December day on which the Colsterdale Man was laid to rest.
He was one of four witnesses who, with strong winds blowing sleet into their faces, stood silent as a mark of respect for a man whose real name was, and remains, unknown.
The man’s skeleton had been found in May 1997 by gamekeeper Christopher Dawes on the Earl of Swinton’s grouse moors close to Colsterdale, 10 miles west of Masham in North Yorkshire.
Eight years later, after extensive police enquiries and with the identity still a mystery, Mr Bowers was asked to collect the man’s remains from a mortuary in Northallerton and prepare them for cremation.
He was joined by a coroner’s officer and two pall bearers for the service, held at Stonefall Cemetery in Follifoot, near Harrogate, on December 30, 2005.
His family firm, founded by his father Billie, has arranged funerals from its offices in Hampsthwaite, Harrogate and Knaresborough since 1947, but this remains the only service it has organised for an unidentified body.
“I didn’t know the man,” Mr Bowers said. “But I know the comfortable and dignified way in which he was treated after his remains were found.
“I have been a funeral director for 50-odd years and yet I clearly remember that day and I look back on it as something that was good to be involved in.
“When the four of us walked from the crematorium in Harrogate, we knew we had done all we could and it was satisfying. Not conclusive, but satisfying.
“We as human beings had done all that we could for that man and that was grand.”
Mr Bowers added that he remembered the respectful manner of the coroner’s officer, Rex Dale, who said at the time: “We felt that someone should be there on his last journey.”
Today, almost six years after his funeral, North Yorkshire detectives remain determined to identify the Colsterdale Man.
His body, found on Thorny Grange Moor, had not been buried but appeared to have fallen on to the heather and, over the course of some 20 years, had become covered by peat from an adjacent drainage ditch.
Forensic tests indicated that he was a white man in his 60s who may have died in the late 1970s. He was wearing a grey suit, a red jumper, a white shirt and a brown and orange tie.
Next to him were some curious objects – a 1958 shilling, a decimal penny issued in February 1971, a mortice key inside a tobacco tin, a brown comb and a black case containing a small portable radio.
The radio is thought to be a Cadeaux 600, a type mass produced in Hong Kong. The brand name is worn, but police believe it to be either CBC, GBG, or a combination of the two. The man was wearing shoes made by the George Ward boot company some time between 1965 and 1980. With a vulcanised rubber sole and a leather inside lining, they were sold by specialist stockists, mainly to military personnel or agricultural workers.
Together with the shoes, historic fractures to the man’s skeleton have led some to suggest that the man may have been a paratrooper, although enquiries with the Parachute Regiment have failed to provide new leads.
Both his heels had been broken – injuries which might have been caused by a hard landing – and there were fractures to his left collarbone, two left ribs and one of the bones in his spine.
As technology has advanced, police have used a range of tactics to identify the man. In one such move, the Human Identification Centre at Glasgow University’s forensic science department used laser mapping and computer graphics to produce a three-dimensional image of how he may have looked, but nobody came forward.
In October 2003, Coroner Geoff Fell recorded an open verdict into the man’s death, but detectives want to know what really happened to him.
The officer in charge of the investigation, Detective Inspector Allan Harder, said: “One hypothesis has been that the Colsterdale Man was a tramp, but this is uncertain. What is certain is that this man was somebody’s son, husband, father or brother.”
He hopes the facial images will prompt someone’s memory so that they can finally identify the Colsterdale Man.”
Do you have information which could help to solve these mysteries? Call Crime Correspondent Rob Preece on 0113 238 8135 or North Yorkshire Police on 0845 6060247.