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Thousands Bid Farewell to Sir Edmund Hillary in New Zealand

Thousands of New Zealanders filed solemnly past the casket of Mount Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary on Monday as they paid final respects ahead of his state funeral Tuesday.

Hillary's body lay in the closed coffin on a catafalque in Auckland's Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral with four soldiers, rifles at rest, standing guard as ordinary New Zealanders bade farewell to a man many simply called "a hero."

Hillary, 88, died of a heart attack on Jan. 11.

The mountaineer and adventurer gained international fame in 1953, when he and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first men to climb Nepal's Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak.

One of the 20th century's greatest adventurers, Hillary later made the first motorized overland trip to the South Pole, led a jet boat expedition from "sea to sky" up India's Ganges River and spent more than 40 years doing charity work for the Sherpa people of Nepal's Solu Khumbu mountain region.

"We are celebrating a very great life," Prime Minister Helen Clark said shortly after Hillary's New Zealand flag-draped casket was welcomed to the Cathedral in this northern city by the local Ngati Whatua Maori tribe with a traditional haka (war dance). Maori women in traditional black, wearing green willow wreaths on their heads, sang.

His widow, Lady June Hillary and family, attended.

About 100 members of New Zealand's Nepali community placed white silk scarves over one end of the casket as a mark of respect. Representatives of the Indian community lit candles and placed a garland of flowers around a large painting of a young Hillary, sitting near the casket.

At its foot, large blue pillows bore some of Hillary's honors, including his insignia star as a Knight of the Garter _ a British order headed by Queen Elizabeth II that has only 25 members at any time.

New Zealand Governor General Anand Satyanand laid a wreath on behalf of the queen, whose June 2, 1953 coronation was held the day his conquest of Mt. Everest was announced.

Many people said they had come to honor Hillary and his achievements.

"He was a great man of the last century," said Auckland taxi driver and former Punjabi-born Indian national Jagpal Kang, 56, recalling the only time he saw Hillary _ in New Delhi in 1989.

"He was ... a towering personality, tall and imposing and impressive," he said.

The lying in state was set to continue throughout the night, ahead of the formal state funeral service on Tuesday.

Hillary's casket will be moved Tuesday from the cathedral to the smaller St. Mary's Church next door for the state funeral, which is set to begin at 11:00 a.m. About 500 invited guests are expected to attend.