Classic funeral for Hawking

Stephen Hawking probably would have been amused that although he was an avowed atheist, his children, Robert, Lucy and Tim, chose to give their father a traditional Christian funeral at Great St Mary's Church in Cambridge on Saturday - and that, too, in Easter Week.

By Amit Roy
  • Published 1.04.18
FINAL JOURNEY: The coffin of Prof. Stephen Hawking arrives at University Church of St Mary the Great in Cambridge on Saturday as mourners gather to pay their last respects. (AP)

London: Stephen Hawking probably would have been amused that although he was an avowed atheist, his children, Robert, Lucy and Tim, chose to give their father a traditional Christian funeral at Great St Mary's Church in Cambridge on Saturday - and that, too, in Easter Week.

Indeed, time past, present and future - maybe in some ways a very Hindu concept - was the underlying theme of the service.

It somehow seemed appropriate for the author of A Brief History of Time, which one of his former students described as "the most famous popular science book of all time".

Despite the rain and the cold, thousands of people gathered in King's Parade to witness what was a very Cambridge occasion. The university church, which accommodated 500 of Hawking's family members, including his first wife, Jane, colleagues and friends, is just across the road from Gonville & Caius College where he was a Fellow for 52 years.

The 11th bell at St Mary's, weighing 900kg, tolled 76 times - one for each year of Hawking's life - as the heavy oak casket was borne, accompanied by applause, by half a dozen porters from Caius. On the coffin were white lilies, representing the "Universe", and white roses, the "Polar star". On departure, the bells would toll with a half-muffled peal.

The pall bearers were preceded by head porter Russ Holmes, attired in the formal college uniform of top hat and tails and carrying his silver-topped ebony cane of office.

It was the college porters who facilitated passage of Hawking's wheelchair when he came into college although special access had been built for him. The Master of Caius, Prof. Sir Alan Fersht, explained: "Porters are at the heart of every Cambridge College.... We are very grateful that Stephen's family have allowed the porters to play this role in the funeral service, providing them with an opportunity very visibly to represent all of us at Gonville & Caius on this important day."

At Caius, where well wishers had placed bouquets of spring flowers, the flag flew at half mast, as it also did at University College, Oxford, where Hawking had been an undergraduate, and at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he had completed his PhD.

The actor Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar for portraying the eminent physicist in the 2014 film The Theory of Everything, read just the right text from Ecclesiastes 3.1-11: "For everything there is a season,/and a time for every matter under heaven:/a time to be born, and a time to die;/a time to weep, and a time to laugh;/ a time to mourn, and a time to dance..."

The service was conducted by Dr Cally Hammond, Dean of Gonville & Caius, with the first Eulogy delivered by Robert Hawking, the eldest of the Hawking children.

The college choir performed Beyond the Night Sky, a space-themed composition which was commissioned by Caius as a gift for the professor for his 75th birthday last year.

The choir recited the Lord's Prayer, while the hymns included Jerusalem and He Who Would Valiant Be, with words adapted from John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.

The secular balance was provided by Hawking's long time friend, Prof. Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, who read from Plato's The Death of Socrates: ".... we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good; for one of two things either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another...... if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead abide, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this?

"What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again... Above all, I shall then be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in the next."

The second Eulogy was given by Prof. Fay Dowker, a former student of Hawking, called his teacher "the most famous science communicator of his day", and spoke of his contribution to black holes and to "spacetime".

"Stephen used Einstein's theory of spacetime and gravity to prove that in the past, there was a moment, the Big Bang, when that theory must break down. Stephen therefore taught us that to understand the origin of our Universe, we need a deeper understanding of spacetime, and he made major contributions in the pursuit of such a deeper theory of quantum cosmology.

"Stephen was my teacher, mentor and friend. I, like many who knew and loved him, had come to think of him as immortal and our sorrow is tinged with a feeling of disbelief that he is no longer here. But his influence and legacy will live forever.

"It has been said, 'The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice'. Stephen, in his life, worked to make it so. We can also say, 'The arc of the history of science is long but it bends towards unity'. Stephen's place in that great history is eternal."

A service of thanksgiving for Hawking's life will take place at Westminster Abbey in London on June 15 when his ashes will be interred next to the graves of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.