Key Points:

Throughout her husband's state funeral, Lady June Hillary remained composed.

From her entrance alongside Prime Minister Helen Clark to her long walk behind the drummer with his mournful rat-tat-tat, through the honour guard of ice axes, in front of the barefoot kids doing a mighty haka, with the lone piper playing Abide With Me, she stood straight, elegant, and strong in the summer rain.

Even when the eight servicemen slid Sir Ed's coffin into the waiting hearse, her step did not falter. Only as the diplomatic car drew away with her, and with Helen Clark in the back seat, on the way to the private cremation did she allow just a remark to her companion.

She is, of course, a woman who has already buried one prominent husband. Now, 29 years on, she is saying goodbye to another.

Lady Hillary's first husband, Peter Mulgrew, was also a well-known mountaineer and a good friend of Sir Edmund. And yesterday these two families whose lives have been intertwined came together publicly, acknowledging ties that go back to the mid-1950s.

Mulgrew was part of Sir Edmund's famous dash by tractor to the South Pole in 1958. He also travelled with Sir Edmund to the Himalayas to take part in an experiment on how much altitude affects climbers, part of which was an attempt to climb 8463m Mt Makalu without oxygen.

Unlike the tall and craggy Hillary, Mulgrew was a small, thin man - and he suffered terribly in the cold, developing pulmonary oedema, losing several fingers and, eventually, both his legs below the knee to frostbite.

As Sir Edmund wrote in his book No Latitude for Error: "He was always keen, enthusiastic and supremely optimistic - an optimism that bordered at times on the impracticable. But I had a particular affection for Peter, for he was my most staunch and willing supporter and I knew that I could rely on him to throw himself into the most ambitious or hair-rasing [adventures] I might suggest."

Their wives and families, who travelled to Nepal with their husbands, were also part of the fun, until disaster struck in 1975 when Sir Ed's wife Louise and daughter Belinda were killed in a plane crash coming into Kathmandu.

Meanwhile, June Mulgrew carried on, leading parties in trekking holidays to Nepal and the Himalayas - until, in November 1979, another tragedy. Peter Mulgrew took Sir Ed's place as commentator on a sightseeing trip to Antarctica on TE 901 - and died in the Erebus plane crash.

Six years after her husband's death, and after, as Peter Hillary put it at the funeral "June came to the rescue with tea and cakes", she was Sir Edmund's official "companion" when he was appointed New Zealand High Commissioner to India, Nepal and Bangladesh. They married in 1989.

During the two-hour funeral, the families of both couples filled the front pews at St Marys's Church, Parnell, with Lady Hillary, now the only one of the four left. The keeper of the flame.

She was flanked front-row by the Prime Minister, who appears a genuine and close friend, and granddaughter, Dr Rebecca Hayman. Next to her was Sir Ed's daughter, Sarah. Two rows back were Peter with his wife Yvonne Oomen and four children, Amelia and George from his first marriage and Alexander and Lily.

Throughout the funeral, which despite being a formal occasion, was essentially a family affair, the stories kept coming. Adventurer Peter and Sarah, a conservator at Auckland Art Gallery, both spoke, joined by their children. Sarah's daughter Anna recited a haiku by Hone Tuwhare, whose tangi was also yesterday.

A viola solo was played in honour of Sir Ed's first wife, Louise, who had played the instrument.

And our so-human hero was shown again as a man of the people, and a family man. Most New Zealand extended families are untidy affairs, but this one has lived its highs and lows in full public glare for more than 50 years. It has endured untimely deaths and Sir Ed's deep depression afterwards; the pain felt by the widowed June Mulgrew; the difficulties of raising children alone - and then yesterday Peter's generous and moving speech that was a personal reaching out to his father.

Robyn Mulgrew's son, Sam, the grandson of Lady Hillary and Peter Mulgrew - and Sir Ed - pulled the threads of this brilliant family together. He spoke with deep affection for Sir Ed and the joy of walking home from King's School on Thursdays to be met by a huge rough handshake and a glass of Ribena. "He was so full of life, I loved nothing more."

And how, at the hospital on the Friday, when his grandfather's "big rough hand, smooth with wear, closed around mine, I knew he was at peace".