Image: Sir Edmund Hillary
AFP/Getty Images file
Sir Edmund Hillary in 1954, a year after his Everest climb.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/21/2008 7:25:58 PM ET 2008-01-22T00:25:58

Thousands of people gathered in parks, halls and churches around New Zealand on Tuesday as the country buried Sir Edmund Hillary, the conqueror of Mount Everest and the South Pacific nation's greatest son.

The state funeral of the first man to successfuly summit the world's highest mountain was, in keeping with the man himself, modest. At least 600 family, friends and dignitaries gathered in St. Mary's Anglican Church.

As the service began, five Sherpas, including one woman, laid traditional prayer scarves on the coffin for "burra sahib," or big man, who had spent more than 40 years working to aid Nepal's development. The New Zealand flag and Hillary's climbing axe he used during his 1953 conquest also draped his coffin.

"We mourn as a nation because we know we're saying goodbye to a friend," said Prime Minister Helen Clark during the service.

Among those attending were the son of Tenzing Norgay, the Nepali sherpa who accompanied Hillary to Everest's 29,035 feet summit.

Thousands, young and old, had filed past the coffin in the previous 24 hours to pay their last respects to the former beekeeper, adventurer, and humanitarian, who died on Jan. 11. He was 88.

Services broadcast in Nepal, Antarctica
On Tuesday, mourners around the country gathered at giant video screens to watch the service, which was also televised in Nepal and at New Zealand's Scott Base in Antarctica, which Hillary founded.

After scaling Everest, Hillary led a number of expeditions. In 1958, he and four companions traveled overland in three modified tractors to become the first to reach the South Pole by vehicle.

"Adventure was compulsory in the Hillary family," said Hillary's son, Peter, during the service. "We always feared where dad was going to take us in the upcoming school holidays."

"That shared adventure was one of the greatest gifts he gave to his family and friends," he said. Peter Hillary followed in his father's footsteps and became a mountaineer.

After the service Hillary was to be cremated in a private family ceremony. He had asked that his ashes be scattered on Auckland's harbor.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Remembering Edmund Hillary

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