New Zealand’s “colossus”, Sir Edmund Hillary, was farewelled in a state funeral in Auckland that combined tears and laughter as his family and friends shared memories of his great achievements and humanity.
St Mary’s Church in Parnell, where the funeral was held, and the neighbouring Holy Trinity Cathedral, where Sir Ed had been lying in state, were filled for yesterday’s service. Thousands watched the funeral on big screens set up in Auckland Domain and other centres around New Zealand.
After the service, in scenes reminiscent of the outpouring of grief and respect shown for prime ministers Norm Kirk and Michael Joseph Savage, bustling Auckland streets were brought to a standstill as crowds four-deep watched Sir Ed’s cortege pass on the way to a private cremation in Meadowbank.
Prime Minister Helen Clark, who accompanied Sir Ed’s widow in the church and the cortege, said Lady Hillary was “blown away by the public outpouring of affection”.
Sir Ed’s daughter Sarah said it was a strange experience to share her father’s funeral with so many people but she was touched by the public’s response to his death.
“When we were driving back to the crematorium I was just astounded by the numbers of people there and they were all waving and throwing flowers and some people were even crying,” she said.
Sir Ed, who with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay was the first climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, died on January 11 aged 88. He was as much loved in Nepal as in his homeland, after 48 years of dedicating himself to improving the health and well-being of the Sherpas.
Nepali culture merged with New Zealand tradition in yesterday’s funeral tribute.
Sir Ed’s coffin was draped in the New Zealand flag and Sherpas covered it in Nepalese khadas — Buddhist prayer scarves — with his climbing axe and a carved walking stick atop.
‘’He is our true guardian and our second father, but he has left us behind today,” Ang Rita Sherpa, chief administrator of the Himalayan Trust that Sir Ed founded, told mourners.
“His loss to us is bigger and heavier than Mt Everest.”
Norbu Tenzing Norgay, elder son of Tenzing Norgay, said Sir Ed “epitomised the true meaning of giving and never asked for anything in return.
“His love and dedication to the Sherpas was like that of a parent to a child; absolutely unconditional.”
Miss Clark said his life was “extraordinary” and an inspiration to others.
“Sir Ed described himself as a person of modest abilities. In reality he was a colossus. He was our hero. He brought fame to our country. We admired his achievements and the great international respect in which he was held,” she said.
Sir Ed’s children paid poignant tributes to him, both raising their father’s fragility when his first wife Louise and youngest daughter Belinda were killed in a plane crash in early 1975, and then his recovery of spirit.
“When I saw him in Kathmandu after my mother and sister died it was as if everything had been sapped out of him … but again it was his sheer determination and his wonderful friends that eventually pulled him out of it,” Sarah Hillary said.
Peter Hillary outlined a family life full of adventures, with Sir Ed impressing upon the children to go ahead and do things.
“I think Dad was a real people’s hero. That was because he was real, he was the genuine article.”
Grandson Sam Mulgrew drew tears speaking about the close relationship he had with Sir Ed, saying he was a family man who loved having a “gang of people all around him”.
But he got giggles too when he revealed that in Sir Ed’s final days in hospital he had the cover name, Vincent Stardust, which the 88-year-old found amusing. “He laughed, with a glint in his eye.”
After the service an honour guard of climbers held ice axes aloft as his casket was carried to the hearse.
Heavy rain which fell before the end of the service eased as the casket was loaded into a hearse and students from Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate in Otara performed a haka specially written for the occasion.
Entitled He Maunga Teitei — The Lofty Mountain, the translated words read: “Look towards the far horizons people of the world. Mourn for the mighty kauri has fallen. He has gone, but his legacy lives on. A lofty mountain who never bowed.”
The cortege headed to the Purewa crematorium, with sustained applause from spectators as it drove past the Newmarket shopping centre where shops had closed for the occasion.
Later yesterday at the Sherpa monastery in Kathmandu, burgundy-robed monks chanted prayers and banged drums for Sir Ed’s soul for several hours — at the start of a ceremony that will last seven days.
To fulfil his wishes, Sir Ed’s ashes are expected to be scattered on Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, possibly from the sail training ship, the Spirit of New Zealand.