As a setting for a ghost story, the busy market square in Braintree (Essex) on a sunny Saturday morning would seem the least likely. But a seemingly innocuous encounter there would lead to baffled Police and the Coroner halting a cremation just minutes before it was due, and a series of lurid local and national headlines.
When it comes to ghosts, I am a skeptic. That scepticism was shaken by a series of events which occurred in the hot summer of 1981, amidst the Toxteth riots, the IRA hunger strikes and just days after the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana.
On Monday 17th August, with shocked friends, I was attending the Chelmsford crematorium funeral of Gerald ‘Reg’ Marten (we all knew him as Reg), a long-haired, softly spoken, sweet-natured man who had taken his own life at the age of 26. It was believed by many of his friends that being jilted was what had finally led Reg to suicide. Standing in the sunshine, the congregation was in for an even greater shock, one shared by the undertaker, when the Coroner ordered the cremation be cancelled and the body returned.
No explanation was given and Funeral Director Keith Collins had to inform the family and vicar Reverend Nash. I vividly remember Reg’s ashen-faced brother, Neville, walking along the line of tearful mourners explaining the bizarre situation as best he could.
What must have been going through the minds of the family at that moment? The hope of all who are bereaved, that miraculous news of a ghastly mistake had arrived? That their loved one was not lost to them? Reg’s mother, Pauline Heath, who had to fly home from a holiday in Turkey, said the family was “shocked and horrified.”
Because Police had received a call from a Braintree couple who were adamant that the body could not be that of Reg Marten. They had spoken to him two hours after the body had been discovered, though they would not learn this through media reports until days later. The meeting had occurred in Braintree Market Square, and the woman, in particular, remembered that Reg had used his nickname for her – ‘Frizz’ – on account of her frizzy hair. She worked at the local Radio Rentals store and had known Reg for three years.
This macabre chain of events had started on Saturday 8thAugust, when a neighbour urged her husband to investigate the garage of the Marten’s White Notley cottage. Something wasn’t right. Fred Stannard initially walked past the darkened car before making a grisly find. Behind the wheel was a corpse, badly decomposed. With no answer at the house, a shocked Stannard alerted Braintree Police. Taking charge of the unpleasant scene fell to Inspector Bill Pirie, who informed the Coroner’s office and CID. It was impossible to retrieve the body without pushing the small, silver Datsun outside, and Police had to use some blue plastic sheeting to hide the scene as best they could. A potential suicide note was found in a pocket. Poorly written and badly stained, it is unclear if it was discovered by the attending officers, or later at the morgue, and hence impossible to say whether the Police believed they had found the corpse of ‘Reg’ Marten at that precise moment. Perhaps fearing further discoveries, officers broke into the Marten property and found the name of friend Adrian Nash in the family’s phone book, and through him alerted Reg’s brother, Neville.
The Marten family was left reeling after the funeral was halted. Reg’s mother, Pauline Heath, told one paper the couple were ‘genuine and sincere people…hiding like mad from the limelight.’ Indeed the couple insisted on remaining anonymous throughout the investigation and afterwards.
With the police adamant that the body was Reg’s and the couple equally adamant that they had met him, and even shaken hands with him, at least a week after his death, Heath conceded:
“I am facing the possibility that the supernatural offers the only possible explanation. My family won’t consider the thought, but I cannot dismiss it.”
A police spokesman acknowledged the couple had made three separate statements and were ‘absolutely convinced that the person they met was Gerald [Reg].’
Acting coroner’s officer, Police Constable Philip Jones said,
“The couple are genuine. Both myself and a senior detective, who has been in the force for twenty years have interviewed them and we could not break the story. Either there is an element of the supernatural in this case or he was mistaken for someone else.”
And the coroner, according to Neville Marten, had confided, in private, ‘the only other explanation is the occult.’
When I interviewed him, former Inspector Bill Pirie had no comment to make about the potential supernatural aspects of the incident, though he did tell of an eerie coincidence; three days before my first email requesting an interview (in 2010) he had been driving past the Marten’s former home and was prompted to tell his children, ‘I know that place.’
At least two more eyewitness accounts of people encountering Reg emerged from the week his body had remained undiscovered; one in the White Hart Hotel, where a barman recalled Reg asking for Sean/Shaun (possibly his other brother?), and another in a Witham pub on Wednesday August 4th by a girl who also knew him well.
When Victorian intellectuals formed the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in the late 1800s, they classed a common form of ghostly sighting as ‘Crisis Apparitions’, visions of people who, unbeknownst to the observer, were either dying at that very moment, or had died only a few days earlier. Chiefly considered by SPR investigators to be a form of telepathic projection manifested by the dying, crisis apparitions were a psychic ‘goodbye’. Largely they were seemingly mundane scenarios, a person walked into a room, said nothing or little of consequence and then left, only for the recipient to sometime afterwards be informed the person had died at, or close to, that time, sometimes even on another continent.
The accounts of Reg Marten from that fateful week are similarly mundane. Wouldn’t the troubled spirit of a person desperate enough to take their own life, manifest that anguish? Not just stop by for a seemingly inconsequential chat? The SPR pioneers were always keen to obtain veridical information from alleged encounters with apparitions of the dead. Certainly, the reported use of a private nickname between Reg and ‘Frizz’ suggests the couple were unlikely mistaken about whom they met. Neither does it discount the possibility of human error about when the encounter took place; though one would imagine that just returning from an overseas holiday would provide a significant mental landmark for the couple, who clearly felt strongly enough to potentially risk the wrath of the authorities and the family.
If Reg’s spirit or consciousness had manifested itself, why not communicate something more meaningful? Or did Reg simply continue to be Reg, as in life, the same personality, unable or unwilling to unburden himself? As Adrian Nash puts it, ‘we didn’t quite pick up on his pain…Reg wasn’t one to talk overtly about his problems and worries.’ Perhaps it was the same in death? Or is it possible he didn’t even realise he was dead?
As with all cases of spontaneous phenomena, you had to be there. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no more sightings of Reg Marten. If there is an afterlife, I sincerely hope Reg found peace.
And a final thought. Despite my skeptical inclinations, I have been unable to throw off a somewhat unsettling notion: if CCTV surveillance cameras had been as common in 1981 as they are now, what might they have captured on that hot sunny day in Braintree’s market square?
Police Probe Halts Funeral – Evening Gazette, Tue, Aug 18, 1981
Funeral Halted by Police Probe – Braintree & Witham Times, Thu, Aug 20, 1981
Riddle of Dead Man In Morgue – Sunday Mirror, Aug 23, 1981
The Ghost Who Shook Our Hands – Evening Gazette, Mon, Aug 24, 1981
Dead Man ‘Shook Hands With Couple’ – Braintree & With Times, Thu, Aug 27. 1981