About 200 people attended the funeral this morning for Harley Lawrence, a homeless man who died in what police are calling a suspicious fire at a Berwick, N.S., bus shelter last week.

The funeral service began at 11 a.m. local time at the White Family Funeral Home in Kentville. The funeral home donated its services to the family, an indication of how much Lawrence's death has affected the community.

Pastor John Andrew, who knew the 62-year-old through his outreach work in the community, said Lawrence is a symbol for the plight of the homeless and for those facing the stigma of mental illness. 

However, he added, Wednesday's service marked a time to set those wider issues aside and let the family grieve for a brother and an uncle they've tragically lost. Andrew said it was a time to remember Lawrence not as a symbol, but as a human being. 

Police are treating Lawrence’s death as "suspicious" and are awaiting further autopsy results.  

Some eyewitnesses to the fire said they saw two young men fill jugs with gasoline and move toward the shelter before the fire. Police said they have no comment on the witness reports.

Lawrence was raised in Hantsport, according to his obituary. One of nine children, Lawrence worked in the Nova Scotia farming community in his youth and enjoyed the outdoors.

In recent years, he lived in several communities across the country.

Life on the streets

Lawrence had been living on the streets of Berwick — a town of about 2,500 in the Annapolis Valley — for about six months before his death.     

“A lot of people were scared of him because he was such a rough-looking character, but there was nothing to be afraid of,” John Harvie, one of Lawrence's childhood friends, said before the funeral.

Harvie remembered Lawrence as a boy with whom he attended church. When Lawrence returned to the Valley 50 years later, Harvie let him sleep in his sunroom.

Harley Lawrence

Harley Lawrence, pictured in his youth, was 62 when he died in a suspicious fire at a bus shelter last week in Berwick, N.S. (Submitted)

“I left the door unlocked so he could get in and use the bathroom if he needed to. I trusted him absolutely,” Harvie said Monday.

Lawrence's niece, Beth Burke, said her uncle would not readily accept help. 

“He was a proud man; he didn’t want help from nobody, not even his family,” she told CBC News after Saturday's vigil attended by hundreds of people.

Donations in memory of Lawrence may be made to the Canadian Mental Health Association.