New Zealand's top police officers, a former top madam and a couple of 1960s safe-blowers were among the 1000 people who farewelled hard-man cop John Hughes yesterday.

The dedicated detective inspector and ultra-distance runner, who died of cancer last week aged 73, would have been amused at the mix, said close friend Norm Sowter, a former colleague.

"I have run into eight or nine people who we would have wanted to know in the past," said Mr Sowter, 70, as he surveyed the crowd after the service at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell.

"In the main, they are ex safe-blowers, the leading madam of Auckland then, receivers of stolen goods and burglars.

"They were a different type of criminal [in the 1950s and 1960s] to the ones we have today - they had respect for the police in spite of being on the wrong side of the fence."

A friendly chap wearing Headhunter regalia said he had not known Mr Hughes but his auntie, in her 60s, had. He took her to the funeral on the back of his gleaming Triumph motorbike.

Among the senior uniforms were Acting Commissioner Steve Long, Acting Deputy Commissioner Roger Carson and Assistant Commissioner Peter Marshall.

Several hundred of those at the two-hour service were retired or current police officers - there were warm long-time-no-see catch-ups afterwards.

Among the former officers was Police Ten 7 presenter Graham Bell and North Shore Mayor George Wood. Also spotted was John Banks, a former Minister of Police who met Mr Hughes as a child.

The two Johns met the day Mr Hughes burst into his room and hauled a crim out from under his bed. From then on, recalled Mr Banks, whenever Mr Hughes visited "he invariably left with a house guest or two. I loved the way he could talk through his teeth".

Mr Marshall read out a letter from a man who spoke of his feelings of "great loss"; it was from Johni Paakkonen, father of murdered Swedish tourist Heidi Paakkonen.

The 1989 case was one of more than 40 murder investigations that Mr Hughes tackled in his 33-year career, during which he gained a reputation as principled and tenacious - and sometimes ruthless enough to make his colleagues blanch.

Son Craig, who spent 17 years as a policeman and is now an investigator for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, said his father still had the urge to serve, even in his final days.

In North Shore Hospice, he was too weak to lift an arm but "sat up and tried to get out of bed" when the alarm went off.

"He said he had to get up to help the people."