Prince's tribute to 'old age' girl
The Prince of Wales has paid tribute to a teenage girl known as "the 100-year-old teenager" who died after being afflicted with a premature ageing condition - as mourners gathered at her funeral today.
In a letter to Hayley Okines's grieving parents, Charles described the 17-year-old who died this month after living a lifetime with progeria as "an inspiration to millions".
The condition, which affects about 125 children in 43 countries, causes people to age eight times faster than the usual rate.
In his letter, the Prince said he had been "deeply impressed by her incredible spirit and her infectious love of life" when they met at the Children of Courage event at Westminster Abbey in 2004.
Charles' letter was read at Hayley's funeral by Father Michael Bailey at All Saints Church in Sidley, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, where more than 250 colourfully-dressed mourners gathered.
On Clarence House-headed paper, Charles told Hayley's parents Kerry and Mark: "I know that she was an inspiration to millions in the way she dealt with the unimaginable challenge of progeria.
"You must be so very proud of the way that she used her brief life to make such a difference to the lives of others through her charity work and I do hope you can take some comfort, despite all the anguish you must be suffering, in her truly astounding achievements.
"It is all the most tremendous credit to the unfailing love and care which I know your family gave her. I fear that under such unspeakably sad circumstances mere words are hopelessly and utterly inadequate.
"So although I realise only too well that it will be of no consolation whatsoever, all we can do is to hold you in our most special thoughts and prayers at such a heart-rending time.
"Yours, with the greatest sympathy, Charles."
Hayley's tiny turquoise-coloured coffin was carried into church by pallbearers, including her mother, in front of mourners who had gathered from countries including America, Portugal and Belgium.
Candles were lit before Hayley's younger sister Ruby sang a song called You're Free, which included the line: "God takes the best ... there must've been a reason why they took you first."
In a personal address to the church, Ruby then spoke of her fond memories of Hayley, whose death prompted tributes from celebrities she had met, including Justin Bieber.
Ruby told the congregation that "she could not ask for a better sister", adding: "Now we all have to be strong about it. I still can't get my head around it."
Hayley's mother broke down as she paid tribute to her daughter, telling mourners: "This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do.
"I'm so proud to call you my daughter. You are the reason why I got out of bed in the morning and managed to put one foot in front of another."
Mrs Okines said she loved Hayley's "sarcasm, dry sense of humour and stubbornness".
And she added: "I can't imagine spending the rest of my life without you."
Mr Okines spoke of his "very special girl" in a poem read out in church.
He said: "Hayley, if you can hear me, I love you so much."
A slideshow depicting some of Hayley's achievements and the people she had met throughout her short life were played on a big screen in church.
They included cherished images of the youngster on holidays, on outings, with friends and family, and with celebrities including Kylie Minogue, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Norman Wisdom.
Father Michael read excerpts from Hayley's book, Old Before My Time, published when she was 14, before paying tribute to her "courage" in an address.
He said: "She has touched the hearts and minds of many people, in the parish, in Sidley, the nation and internationally, too.
"We all of us one day will depart this life and will we have the same courage as this young lady to face the problems of life so head on?
"Not to wish away our problems but to deal with them to directly with strong determination." Fr Michael said Hayley's "memory and legacy" would never be forgotten.
And he went on: "Hayley's smile tells us that she lived an action-packed life. It is hard to keep up with all her adventures, as a 13-year-old girl she hugged Justin Bieber.
"She was a teenager with all the hopes and excitements of life. This is her memory, her legacy, to live for the day and to do so with courage."
Following prayers, Hayley's coffin was brought out of church to Don't Stop by 5 Seconds of Summer, before a private committal.