The handwritten suicide letter was 10 pages long, penned by an exceedingly private man who seldom shared his personal thoughts.

More deeply puzzling to friends and family, Robert I.H. Hammerman, 76, copied and mailed the letter to 2,200 people Wednesday, the day before the retired Baltimore Circuit Court judge shot himself in the chest.

His body was found in woods near his Baltimore County home.

"People are in shock," said Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, one of Hammerman's closest friends on the bench. "Nobody knew he was having problems. Bobby was not a person who confided in anybody. He was very much a loner."

Kaplan was among hundreds at a graveside service yesterday to honor Hammerman, a lifelong bachelor who served as a Baltimore judge for almost 44 years. Many came to ask why, to deconstruct the man they believed they knew before they received his letter -- the man who, even into his seventies, skipped up the marble stairs in the city's downtown courthouse two at a time.

Suicide, so often an impulsive act, did not mesh with Hammerman, whom friends and acquaintances described as anything but rash. Order, organization and rules of protocol were paramount in his life.

Lawyers who argued cases before him knew they had to follow a few rules: They were not permitted to be even one minute late, an unusual edict in the normally chaotic Baltimore Circuit Court. They were not to touch his bench. And they were not to go near the framed portrait of Hammerman's father -- who also had been a lawyer -- that the judge displayed on the left side of his bench.

Perhaps his meticulous nature is why Hammerman planned his death for almost a year and a half, according to the letter, and why he decided to offer such a public commentary on his reasoning.

Longtime Baltimore lawyer William H. Murphy Jr., a friend of Hammerman's since the 1970s, was one of those who received the letter. "How often do you get a letter like this?" Murphy asked. "I felt tremendous sorrow for him."

Hammerman's former secretary, Dana Amato, said she and her 14-year-old son were very close to the judge.

"I saw the man almost every day," said Amato, who said she last saw him Oct. 29. "He was in good spirits. He was very light. That's the point. There was no room for anyone to help him because there were no signs."

For more than four decades, Hammerman's presence loomed large in Baltimore's courthouse. When he retired from the bench in 1998 at the mandatory age of 70, he was the longest-serving trial judge in Maryland history. He helped settle civil disputes and protect the city from violent crime.

He was remembered as a man who regularly beat squash and tennis opponents 50 years his junior.

The Baltimore native graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1950 and Harvard Law School in 1953. He became a Circuit Court judge in 1967.

After retiring, Hammerman saw his former colleagues often, continuing to preside over trials as a visiting judge until shortly before his death.

But in the letter, he portrayed himself as a man who felt quite alone. His memory often failing him, Hammerman feared he was suffering from Alzheimer's -- although the disease was never diagnosed.

"The thought of Alzheimer's is dreadful to me. I would need institutionalization," he wrote. "There are happily certain people who care about me -- but none able to care for me."

The letter described how desperately he wished for a heart attack so that he could die as his father had. "But my regular exams continue to show a very strong heart," he lamented.

And so, in his exacting style, Hammerman planned his suicide, going as far as obtaining a permit for a handgun and taking two training sessions at a police firing range so he would know how to shoot it properly.

Hammerman wrote that he crafted his suicide note in July 2003 at Dartmouth College's rare book library in Hanover, N.H., as looked upon a tree that he had planted in the name of his sister, Caroline E. Goldsmith.

"My deepest hurt at this moment is my dear sister, Caroline -- my only sibling -- 1 year and 8 hours older than I," he wrote. "I was her first birthday present."

He reflected in the letter on the long planning phase, which he described as a hardship, even though it forced him to place his affairs in order.

"Making the decision 16 months ago has had . . . one disadvantage. The disadvantage -- quite a burden to live with this, plan it and be fully active all the while in my two major pursuits -- the judiciary and the Lancers Club."

Hammerman wrote of the Baltimore-based youth service group he helped found in 1946. One of the most painful episodes in his life came in early 2000 after a Lancers Club activity, when a student at Gilman School, one of Baltimore's most prestigious private institutions, accused Hammerman of looking at him inappropriately while they were showering in a locker room after a tennis match. The judge denied acting improperly.

Friends who gathered yesterday at Arlington Cemetery of Chizuk Amuno Congregation preferred to remember the jovial and fastidious man who was punctual to a fault, a judge who fervently followed the rules of courtroom decorum.

His sister said that when she went to his condominium after his death, she found notes in each room detailing his best-loved items -- including a favorite trash can -- and an outfit he had worn as a 4-year-old. "Please treasure it," he wrote.

Hammerman planned out the memorial service, even writing instructions for Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, his friend, about how to proceed. On Nov. 1, Hammerman left Wohlberg a note that began, "In the unlikely event of my demise."

Wohlberg read aloud that note, as he was instructed by the judge. " 'You would have thought that my passing would have finally shut me up,' " Wohlberg read, causing the crowd of mourners to chuckle.

The judge said he wanted no eulogies.

After the reading, Hammerman's pine coffin with a single red tulip atop was lowered into the ground.

The people who knew the judge best still don't know why a man who didn't seem to care what others thought of him would craft such a letter and send it to more than 2,000 people.

In the middle of the letter, though, Robert Hammerman seemed to try to answer the question himself.

"Some may say of me that it is an act of a coward," he wrote. "So be it. It is so easy for one outside the ring to tell the fighter how to fight his fight."

Robert I.H. Hammerman planned his death for almost a year and a half.Mourners surround Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg as he reads at Arlington Cemetery of Chizuk Amuno Congregation. Friends of Robert I.H. Hammerman carry his body in the plain pine coffin that he requested in a letter about his memorial service that he sent to Wohlberg.