Macksville - The funeral of Australian Test cricketer Phillip Hughes began to the strains of a song entitled "Forever Young" in his home town on Wednesday as a nation united to celebrate the life of a sportsman cut down in his prime.
Eight days after Hughes was struck by a ball in the back of the head and six after he died of the catastrophic injuries that resulted, his family, friends and a host of cricketing greats gathered at Macksville High School to bid farewell to him.
Father Michael Alcock welcomed the mourners in the small rural community halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, 1 000 mostly locals packed inside the school hall with thousands more watching on screens in the baking heat outside.
"We gather to celebrate his 26 years of life. That is what we are doing here this afternoon," he said to open the service shortly after 14:00 local time.
"To those both near and far whom his life has touched, we pray this afternoon that today we will feel some consolation as we celebrate his life."
The service was broadcast live on national television and on big screens in Australia's major cities, including at the Sydney Cricket Ground where Hughes suffered the fatal injury during a state match last Tuesday.
The mourners included Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the Australia cricket team, Hughes's team-mates from the South Australia side and Sean Abbott, the New South Wales bowler whose delivery had such tragic consequences.
Also in attendance were Australian cricket greats such as Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath and the Waugh brothers, while Richard Hadlee, Brian Lara and India captain Virat Kohli represented the wider world.
Australia captain Michael Clarke, who has played a lauded role in comforting the family since his friend was injured last Tuesday, was a pallbearer and read a tribute.
Hughes, who would have been 26 last Sunday, was batting for a recall to the Australia side for the opening match in the Test series against India - since rescheduled - when he suffered the injury that killed him.
The number 63, the runs Hughes had accumulated when he was struck by the ball last week, has become inextricably linked with the tragedy, as has 408, a reference to him becoming the 408th man to play Test cricket for Australia in 2009.
Most of all though, it is the viral campaign to get people to place cricket bats in tribute outside homes, workplaces and at sports grounds that has become the most common manifestation of the outpouring of grief around the world.
That was reflected in a line of bats along the fence of a primary school, one of many tributes beside the route down which the casket will travel through Macksville in procession after the funeral.