When the hearse carrying the body of Professor Stephen Hawking arrived at the university church of Great St. Mary’s in Cambridge, the bell rang 76 times — to mark each year of the renowned physicist’s life.
His coffin was draped with white flowers — lilies for the universe, roses for the polar star. Six pallbearers carried the coffin from Gonville & Caius College, where Hawking was a fellow for more than 50 years.
Hawking’s family invited around 500 guests for the private service. His oldest son Robert eulogized him. His former student, the British physicist Fay Dowker, spoke as if she had come to think of him as immortal. The actor Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Hawking in the 2014 film The Theory of Everything, read Ecclesiastes 3.1-11.
The choir of Gonville & Caius college sang “Beyond the Night Sky,” a choral work composed as gift to Hawking for his 75th birthday last year.
Hawking was an atheist. “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” he once told the Guardian. ‘There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” But because of his deep ties to Cambridge University, his family chose the customary Church of England service given to longtime fellows here.
Outside the church, there were more admirers. They broke into applause when Hawking’s coffin arrived. Some took selfies, others held up their phones and iPads over their heads, hoping to snap a glimpse of something. Fourteen-year-old Nikos Orginis climbed onto a metal police railing, balancing precariously as he snapped photos.
“I had to find a way,” he said. “Because I’m not going to see the man ever again. And he was a good scientist.”
“A great scientist,” his father, Kostas Originis, corrected him.
Like Hawking, Orginis is also a physics professor. He now teaches at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. He’s on sabbatical this year at Cambridge University.
“My office was actually under Professor Hawking’s office,” Orginis said. “I saw him in his chair wandering around the building. Once I was close enough to hear him speak. He was talking to a colleague about a scientific issue. I regret that I didn’t talk to him.”
Hawking was a hero to Orginis. When he was a boy studying mathematics in his native Greece, Orginis heard Hawking did math in his head because he wasn’t able to speak or write.
“And I would lay in bed at night, trying to solve homework problems in mathematics in my head, without writing them out,” he said. “I couldn’t. I was never able to understand how he managed to think and solve problems that way, all in his head.”
His wife, Lily Panoussi, a classical studies professor at William and Mary, says her aunt, Georgia, died of ALS, the same disease that had gripped Hawking his entire adult life.
“I know how devastating this disease can be,” she said. “To me, he’s someone who almost beat ALS, which is something that’s unheard of. On top of all his accomplishments, he did that.”
Retiree Roy Harris, 75, was in Cambridge to go shopping when he got word about the funeral. He never understood exactly what Hawking did. “It was a bit beyond me, to be honest,” he said. “But he was a great man. We are all so proud of him.”
As the service ended, the bells rang out again. Education activist Chris Imafidon brought his 17-year-old twin niece and nephew, Paula and Peter, to pay their respects.
Paula, who loves physics, was already a fan. Paula and Peter are both prodigies. At age 9, they became the youngest secondary school students in Britain. Paula, a math whiz, says Hawking inspired her to love physics.
“Physics is like diving into the unknown,” she said. “And he wasn’t afraid to push the limits of the unknown. He literally had no boundaries although he was constrained physically. He broke those boundaries with his mind.”
Chris Imafidon said he’s still moved by Hawking’s 2008 speech at the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Cape Town, South Africa. Hawking spoke of the “prospective young Einsteins” from “Africa’s brilliant talents.”
“I can never forget that speech,” he said. “And he also encouraged talented kids from underprivileged backgrounds here in Britain.”
Admirers left bouquets of flowers near the church. “Goodbye Stephen,” read one handwritten note from a mourner named Sue. “The universe will now shine with its brightest star. I will miss you.”
Kostas Orginis, the physics professor, told his 12-year-old daughter Anna that Hawking had great courage. “Today many people get upset over little problems,” he said. “This guy managed to stay alive for so long with such big problems, and we should all put our lives in perspective, based on what he has accomplished.”
Hawking’s ashes will be interred in London’s Westminster Abbey, next to the grave of another famed physicist, Isaac Newton.