Locals share their memories at Stephen Hawkings funeral

Huge turnout at service, as those who knew him reminisce about the great physicist

Rain had been promised but, as with many of the gloomiest predictions made for the young Stephen Hawking, the threatened deluge did not come.

Indeed, despite the solemnity of the occasion, the Cambridge funeral of a man who throughout his life seemed to command as much admiration from the lay public as from his academic peers was something of a celebration.

The crowd, waiting to pay their respects to a man who died at the age of 76 but had not been expected to live beyond his 20s, broke into spontaneous applause as shortly after 2pm Hawkings coffin was carried aloft into the church of St Mary the Great, a stones throw from Gonville and Caius college where he had been a fellow for more than half a century.

Among those paying their respects was Carl Green, 42, from Peterborough. Standing with his young son, who had discovered Hawking through his numerous appearances in The Simpsons, Green had been waiting since 10am.

He was such a great person, Green said. I really wanted to be here to see him have a great send-off.

Like many in the multicultural crowd, which stretched along both sides of Cambridges famous Kings Parade, Green admitted he knew little about Hawkings work, but admired the physicists character, in particular his refusal to be defined by the motor neurone disease that eventually robbed him of voice and movement.

Crowds
Crowds gathered as the funeral procession passed through the streets of Cambridge. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Laragh Jeanroy, who was at school with Hawkings daughter, Lucy, was another paying her respects. What would be her abiding memory of a man she had come to know through those most normal of social events barbecues and birthday parties?

Given he was someone who was so physically limited, it would be how he managed to communicate and get on with things and how it did not stop him expressing himself and his sense of humour, she said.

Others admitted to having been drawn by the sense of spectacle. As befits a man who seemed as comfortable with celebrity as he was with the cerebral, Hawkings funeral drew a starry crowd. The actors Eddie Redmayne who played Hawking in The Theory of Everything, a film about his life and Simon Russell Beale, a former student of Gonville and Caius, were in attendance. So, too, were the model Lily Cole and Queen guitarist Brian May.

Eddie
Eddie Redmayne arrives at the church. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Justina Vemmatumaid, 30, from Lithuania, had come with her parents, who live in Kings Lynn, Norfolk. He achieved so much, she explained. I have seen the film with Eddie Redmayne. Its important to be with the people, to be in the moment at events like this.

Large numbers of Chinese and Japanese media were also present, testament to Hawkings truly global reputation. One Chinese journalist, Amanda H, said: Hawking is the person for all human beings, not just Britain.

Many in the crowd were local and had a Hawking story of their own, often involving his nonchalance when it came to negotiating traffic with his electric wheelchair.

He was a great man, one woman said. Youd always see him around. The last time I saw him he came into the cinema to watch Beauty and the Beast with his family.

Catherine Pritchard used to help Hawking when he came into Heffers bookshop, just up the road from St Mary the Great, in the mid 1980s. This was when he was losing his voice but had yet to start using the electronic synthesiser with which he became so associated.

He was such a character and he had such a sense of humour, Pritchard said. But she saw something else in him, too. He had this look in his eyes, like he had things to say. I could see that he had a power about him. It was not physical, not like someone who works with their hands. But there was a real power there.

Pritchard recalls being woken by her parents in the dead of night when she was around three years old to see the train taking Churchills body to his funeral. I can still smell the steam from the train, she said. This was a man who had been in the last cavalry charge and had lived to see the atomic age. Hawkings life is similar, in terms of the transition it has seen.

And, like Churchill, Hawking was a protean character. Several in the crowd were paying their respects in wheelchairs and were keen to talk about how he had been an inspiration to them. Others mentioned his championing of stem-cell research, his support for the NHS and his acute environmental concerns.

After the applause subsided and the service began inside the church, the subdued crowd braving the drizzle seemed a little hesitant, a little lost. It did not want to disperse immediately. It was aware that it had been witness to something important. Something lingered in the absence. But then, as Hawking famously helped explain, even black holes emit radiation.

In one entrance to Gonville and Caius, some of the crowd had left small bouquets of flowers. A note attached to one bouquet, from a woman called Sue, seemed to speak for them all: Goodbye, Stephen the universe will now shine with its brightest star.

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