Edmund Hillary: a national hero is remembered in New Zealand and Nepal

The funeral of the man who conquered Everest was an occasion for mourning in the land of his birth and the country where he made history. Kathy Marks reports

For New Zealanders, Sir Edmund Hillary was the closest thing they had to royalty. For the people of Nepal, he was an adored father figure. Yesterday, at a state funeral in Auckland to bid farewell to the Everest conqueror, Nepalese Sherpas laid prayer shawls on his coffin, which was carried through an honour guard of local mountaineers holding ice axes aloft.

In St Mary's Anglican Church, local and international dignitaries paid their respects to one of the greatest adventurers of the 20th century. Outside, in the streets of Auckland, thousands of New Zealanders followed the service, which was also beamed live around the region, on big screens.

The four surviving members of Sir John Hunt's 1953 Everest expedition were among those who joined the Hillary family in the large, Gothic wooden church. They included Sir Edmund's fellow New Zealander George Lowe, to whom he famously remarked on his descent: "Well, we knocked the bastard off."

Jan Morris, the journalist who – as James Morris – broke the news to the world that the highest peak had finally been scaled, was also present.

As flags fluttered at half mast across New Zealand, Helen Clark, the Prime Minister, told the congregation: "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."

Sir Edmund was 33 when he and his climbing guide, Tenzing Norgay, became the first men to reach the roof of the world. He was 88 when he died of a heart attack 12 days ago. He had spent much of the past 40 years working to help the Sherpa people who live in Everest's foothills – raising money for schools, hospitals, bridges and airfields, and supervising much of the development work himself.

Tenzing Norgay's son, Norbu Tenzing Norgay, said yesterday: "[Sir Edmund's] love and dedication to the Sherpas was like that of a parent to a child: absolute and unconditional. When the Sherpas heard the news of his death, their grief spiralled into mourning only comparable to the loss of a parent."

In accordance with Buddhist tradition, 49 days of mourning are taking place in Nepal.

In Auckland, saffron-robed Buddhist monks and foreign dignitaries – from Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada, India, Ireland, Russia and Tonga as well as Nepal – heard Sir Edmund's son, Peter, recall: "Adventure was compulsory in the Hillary family. We always feared where dad was going to take us in the upcoming school holidays."

Peter Hillary, who became a mountaineer himself and climbed Everest twice, added: "That shared adventure was one of the greatest gifts he gave to his family and friends."

Thousands of people had filed past Sir Edmund's body as it lay in state at Auckland's Holy Trinity Cathedral on Monday. Yesterday, his coffin, draped in the New Zealand flag, was carried to St Mary's, where it was welcomed by a group of Ngati Whatua, the local Maori tribe.

At the altar, five Nepalese mourners placed the traditional cream-coloured prayer scarves on Sir Edmund's casket. The ice axe that he used to scale Everest also lay atop it, along with roses and a carved walking stick.

The funeral service began with the ringing of a bell from HMNZS Endeavour, the ship that took Sir Edmund to Antarctica in 1956 to help set up New Zealand's Scott Base research station.

Ms Clark, who sat with Sir Edmund's widow, Lady June, and other family members, told the congregation: "We mourn as a nation because we know we're saying goodbye to a friend."

She added: "Above all, we loved Sir Ed for what he represented: a determination to succeed against the odds, humility, and an innate sense of fair play... How privileged we were to have that living legend with us for 88 years."

No member of the British Royal Family was present – an omission interpreted as a snub by sections of the New Zealand media. The Everest ascent, the fruits of a British-led expedition, were hailed as a British achievement – despite Sir Edmund being a New Zealander and Tenzing Norgay from Nepal.

The pair reached the summit on 29 May 1953, four days before Queen Elizabeth's coronation, and one of her first acts as monarch was to knight Sir Edmund. The former beekeeper was also a member of the elite Order of the Garter. The Queen has invited members of the Hillary family to a memorial service in her private chapel at Windsor Castle in April.

After conquering Everest, Sir Edmund led a tractor team across Antarctica to the South Pole and travelled by jet boat up the Ganges to its source. He also spent two years as New Zealand's high commissioner to India.

Despite his achievements, and the esteem in which he was held, "Sir Ed" remained an unassuming figure. He refused to be seen as a hero or celebrity. His number was listed in the phone book, alongside those of other Auckland residents.

Pupils from a school named after him performed a Maori war dance of farewell on the church forecourt before the cortège left for a private cremation service. He had asked that his ashes be scattered not on a mountain, but on the waters of Auckland's Hauraki Gulf, perhaps to wash ashore "to complete the cycle of my life".