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Final farewell for Edmund Hillary

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  • New Zealand says final goodbye to national hero Sir Edmund Hillary
  • In the congregation is family, Nepalese Sherpas, politicians and friends
  • Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first men to climb Mount Everest
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(CNN) -- Sir Edmund Hillary has been laid to rest in New Zealand after thousands paid tribute to a mountaineer whose conquest of Mt Everest in 1953 was one of the 20th century's defining moments.

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A last farewell to Sir Edmund Hillary.

Guests filled Auckland's Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral and an overflow area next door for a service. Among the guests were politicians, mountaineers and friends.

Lady Hillary sat with family and Prime Minister Helen Clark. In the congregation were members of Nepal's Sherpa community and Buddhist monks.

In front of them, Hillary's coffin was draped in a New Zealand flag and covered in wreaths. Photo See photos of the funeral service »

As the service began, Sherpas laid Tibetan prayer scarves on the coffin. In Nepal, schools were due to ring bells as the service started.

Hillary's son, Peter, told the congregation: "Adventure was compulsory growing up in the Hillary household. He took us to the most extraordinary places."

His daughter, Sarah spoke of a childhood where Sir Edmund was planning expeditions, and coming home to a family eager to see him again. "When asked at primary school what my father did, I was unable to find an answer."

Clark said: "He was a role model for a generation of New Zealanders... We mourn as a nation because we know we are saying goodbye to a friend."

On Monday, New Zealanders filed past Hillary's casket as they paid final respects in Auckland's Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral.

Four soldiers, rifles at rest, stood guard as ordinary New Zealanders said goodbye to a national hero, whose achievements are known around the world.

Hillary's widow attended the tribute, which featured Maori song and dance. Clark, called it a celebration of a "very great" life.

Hillary, who was 88, died at Auckland City Hospital on January 11.

On May 29, 1953, Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide, became the first men to climb the 29,035 feet to the top of Everest and safely return.

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Hillary, who served during World War II in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, began climbing while in high school and traveled to the central Himalayas to join a British party exploring the southern face of Everest in 1951.

He returned in 1953, when he and Norgay made their ascent -- spending 15-30 minutes at the summit.

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He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II on his return to England, but continued exploring -- reaching the South Pole by tractor in 1958, joining the first group to climb Antarctica's Mount Herschel in 1967 and boating east Himalayan rivers and the Ganges.

His Himalayan Trust has helped build schools, hospitals and airstrips in Nepal since 1961. He was also a strong supporter of environmental causes and worked to improve the lives of Nepal's Sherpas. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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