Heartbreaking scenes as Dean McIlwaine's family and friends say a moving farewell
Funeral for tragic barber whose disappearance sparked cross-community search effort
The heartbroken girlfriend of Newtownabbey barber Dean McIlwaine sent a poignant and loving farewell message to him at his funeral yesterday.
Demi-jo McMahon told Dean, whose body was found at Cave Hill in north Belfast at the weekend: "I want you to know that I will never stop loving you. I miss you every single day and I long to be with you."
She added: "I miss our conversations and the way you made me smile. But I know you are watching over me."
Her words were read by one of six friends, who paid moving tributes to Dean yesterday.
And later, in the shadow of Cave Hill, where Dean died a solitary death a fortnight ago, hundreds of people gathered for a very public outpouring of grief as the award-winning 22-year-old barber was laid to rest in Carnmoney Cemetery.
Yesterday a minister warned mourners it was possible that Dean's devastated family might never know what led to his death, which police have said they are not treating as suspicious.
Dean, who was planning to open his own barber's shop in the Newtownabbey area, went missing after he was last seen alive on the Carnmoney Road on July 13.
And at Carnmoney Presbyterian Church, on the same road, the start of yesterday's service had to be delayed because so many people were queuing to get in to say goodbye to him.
On top of the coffin at the front of the church, relatives placed several pictures of the ever-smiling Dean, whose inexplicable death has left his friends and family devastated and bewildered.
Two of the friends who read poems and shared memories of Dean and anecdotes about him were overcome with emotion as they tried to speak of their shock at his passing.
Dean was described as a "one in a million" friend with a heart of gold, who brought laughter and happiness to many people's lives.
"He will live on in our hearts and minds," said one man, who added that he hoped Dean would be having a party "up above" with two of his friends who had died in recent years.
One of them was Alan Drennan from Newtownabbey, who passed away on holiday in Ibiza in 2015.
As the congregation burst into spontaneous applause at the end of their messages, the six distraught friends huddled together for support.
Another tribute left even more people in tears as Dean's life story was told in a series of pictures on video screens - from his earliest days in a Noddy top to the sharp tailored suits he wore on nights out with his friends. Even Carnmoney minister the Rev John Dickinson acknowledged Dean's fashion sense.
He said: "He loved style and clothes and was immaculately turned out.
"The shop he was finishing was going to be finished to a very high standard."
The cleric said it wasn't surprising that so many were fond of him. "He was soft-hearted in many ways, and when you got to know him it was hard not to love him," he added. "He was held in high esteem by everyone who knew him and he had a great sense of fun."
But turning to the mystery surrounding Dean's death on Cave Hill, where his body was found after hundreds of volunteers searched for him last Saturday, the minister said that what happened would probably never be known.
Mr Dickinson said it appeared that Dean had everything going for him, adding: "Apart from the death of his granda only a few weeks ago, this had been a good summer for Dean."
The cleric said Dean had been to Cyprus for his brother Glen's wedding, and as well as looking forward to opening his salon he'd got the qualifications which enabled him to get a position teaching barbering to students in September.
And Mr Dickinson added that Dean had also taken possession of the keys to a new home with Demi-jo.
"Which makes what brings us here today all the more tragic," he added.
"His parents and friends know so little about the last hours of his life and will probably never know exactly what happened, and we are not here today to speculate on that."
Mr Dickinson said Dean's family had found it hard to deal with the stresses of the search for him, which "stretched over nine long days and nights".
He added: "What words are there, adequate to the loss that this family have sustained and the trauma they have experienced, not only personally but in a very public way?"
In the end the ordeal of the funeral was too much for Rod and Karen McIlwaine.
After their son's coffin was brought from the church to the strains of The Hollies' hit song He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother, the McIlwaines and Demi-jo were among the pall bearers.
But minutes later his parents wept uncontrollably and clung to each other for comfort as lone piper Glen Baxter led the cortege towards the cemetery playing Amazing Grace, Abide With Me and other hymns.
The McIlwaines had thanked the people who hunted tirelessly for their son, searchers who'd come from both sides of the community.
Former First Minister Arlene Foster acknowledged in a tweet that she was of proud of how people had pulled together in the search for Dean.
Some of the volunteers attended the funeral service, including one of the co-ordinators of the operation, Paul McCusker, who is an SDLP councillor.