AUCKLAND, New Zealand – Sherpas laid prayer scarves on Sir Edmund Hillary’s coffin as thousands across New Zealand bid farewell to the Mount Everest conqueror today. An honor guard held ice axes aloft as his casket was carried through.
About 500 New Zealand and international dignitaries joined the Hillary family at a state funeral in St. Mary’s Anglican Church in this northern city, while thousands gathered at big screen venues in cities nationwide to pay respects to Hillary.
The enormously popular adventurer died of a heart attack on Jan. 11 at the age of 88.
“In reality he was a colossus, he was our hero, he brought fame to our country … but above all we loved Sir Ed for what he represented – a determination to succeed against the odds,” Prime Minister Helen Clark told mourners.
As the service began, five Sherpas laid traditional prayer scarves on the coffin for Hillary, who had spent more than 40 years working to aid Nepal’s development.
The ice ax used by Hillary on his May 29, 1953, conquest of Mt. Everest with mountain guide Tenzing Norgay also lay atop the flag-draped coffin.
His son, mountaineer Peter Hillary, who has twice climbed Everest, said his father “was a real people’s hero” and that helping the Nepali people “really was the great calling of my father’s life.”
Ang Rita Sherpa, head of Hillary’s Himalayan Trust aid group in Nepal, said he was “an idol and inspiration for everybody” who had transformed the lives of two generations of Sherpas.
In the congregation were dignitaries and diplomats from many nations, including the U.K., U.S., Australia, Canada, India, Ireland, Nepal, Russia and Tonga.
The four surviving members of the original 14-strong 1953 Mt. Everest climbing team attended the funeral service, which ended with the singing of the national anthem.