THE family and friends of St Leonards man Piers Hopson paid their last respects to him at his funeral and thanksgiving service on Tuesday.
Scores of people gathered at the Church of St John the Evangelist in Crowborough for prayer and to pay tribute to him.
The service was conducted by Reverend John Boyce and started with the singing of the hymn, Amazing Grace.
Afterwards a reading from Revelation 21: 1 – 7 was given before Piers’ father, Roger, paid tribute to him. He spoke of his son who had ‘great enthusiasm’ about everything and would ‘talk non-stop’ about his latest interest.
Mr Hopson said: “When he was younger Piers had a passion for football, and like many youngsters he wanted to be a famous footballer, playing for Manchester United no less. He used to watch football avidly, and listened to commentaries and studied the sports pages.
“It reached the stage when he could tell you who scored each goal and when in all of the league matches and for all of the teams going back 20 years or more.
“Piers loved to listen to music, both pop and classical. His favourite artist was Pavarotti. Whenever he came to stay with us for a few days, if I were playing the piano, he would come in to sit and listen, occasionally making the odd constructive comment.”
Piers, 35, who lived in Southwater Road, St Leonards, suffered from Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism.
He disappeared on January 25, 2010 from his care home after saying he was going on a walk. The last sighting of him was in Rock-a-Nore Road.
His family spent two-and-a-half years searching for him, distributing posters with his face on across Sussex, Kent and beyond.
Numerous possible sightings of Piers were made and reported to police, but none were confirmed.
His sister, Abigail Gutteridge, took the search online by setting up a Facebook page, called Help Find Piers Hopson, which drew more than 2,000 followers.
Piers’ family even offered a £10,000 reward for his safe return and made numerous televised appeals and in the local media.
But Piers’ body had already been found eight miles off Newhaven in September 2010 by a French trawler and taken back to France.
It took until April this year for his remains to be formally identified despite a DNA profile being taken a year earlier.
Piers’ family were told the devastating news by police in June after the results were passed on to Sussex Police.
Mr Hopson, in his tribute at Tuesday’s service, thanked Sussex Police, the charity Missing People, the media and everyone who helped in the family’s search for Piers.
Everyone then sang the hymn, O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, before Mrs Gutteridge paid tribute to her brother.
She said: “I have felt lost and empty since that day back in January 2010 when I got home from holiday to discover that Piers had been missing for almost a week. At first I assumed he would just turn up somewhere silly and there would be an amusing tale to tell.
“He’d got lost before, many times, and the police had always found him. That didn’t happen this time. We waited, we searched, but all we got was one big long silence. Piers and I grew up together. As a family, we used to go on holiday to the Greek island of Cephalonia, to a small dinghy sailing club. Piers learned to sail a Topper and then moved onto the more difficult Laser.
“He was always unpredictable when it came to birthdays. The year before he disappeared he forgot to send me a birthday card. I was amused when a few months later he handed me a card and present saying ‘Happy birthday, it took me some time to find you a present’.
“I opened the present, a vase which now has pride of place on my landing, but I left the card unopened, saying: ‘I’ll save it for next year in case you forget again’. By the time the next year came, and Piers was missing,
“I didn’t have the stomach to put the card up. From now on though, I’m going to put that birthday card up every year.
“Because of Piers I am grateful for everything I can do in this life, and the ease with which I can do it.
“I have felt an intense relief that we know now where he is. It was not the conclusion we were hoping for, but at last, the search is over. We have found Piers and I truly believe he is now in a better place.”
She concluded by reading a poem Piers had written, called I Look Like You.
A prayer of thanksgiving was then said and Piers’ mother, Dawn, read the poem Tewkesbury Road, by John Masefield in tribute to her son’s fondness of walking. Another blessing was given before people sang Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.
Piers’ family and friends made donations to the National Autistic Society and Missing People before gathering for refreshments at Crowborough Community Centre.