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Thousands pack funeral for Mormon leader

The president of the Mormon church was remembered Saturday as a "giant among men" who cared deeply for others and devoted his life to the work of his faith.
Mormon President
A person walks past a portrait of Gordon B. Hinckley, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, into his outer office area of the administration building on Thursday in Salt Lake City. The leader of the Mormon church died Sunday.Douglas C. Pizac / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gordon B. Hinckley was remembered as a "prophet to the people" on Saturday as tens of thousands of faithful Mormons gathered to say goodbye to the church's longtime president.

The funeral at the conference center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints capped a week of mourning for Hinckley, who died Jan. 27 at age 97.

Hinckley's children and closest advisers chronicled his lifetime service to the faith, including unprecedented growth during his 13 years as president.

"He was our prophet, seer and revelator. He was an island of calm in a sea of storm," said Thomas S. Monson, a friend for more than 50 years, a close advisor and likely to be Hinckley's successor. He called him a "prophet to the people."

Unprecedented growth for church
During Hinckley's tenure, the church expanded to 13 million members from 9 million in 160 countries. He established an education fund to help returned missionaries, expanded the church's humanitarian work and built more than 75 temples around the world.

On Feb. 8, the church will dedicate its 125th temple, in Rexburg, Idaho.

"Disciplined and courageous, with an unbelievable capacity for work, he believed in growth," daughter Virginia H. Pearce said. "He was a marvel to watch."

The 90-minute service was mixed with eulogies and soothing hymns from the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the nearly full 21,000-seat conference center.

The grandson of Mormon pioneers, Hinckley was born in Salt Lake City and spent much of his youth on a family farm.

He had his eye on a journalism career, but instead went to work for the church in 1935 to establish a public relations department. He was credited with seeing the potential of media and technology to spread the church message.

"Gordon B. Hinckley was the great communicator," church elder Earl C. Tingey said, adding to the long list of the late president's attributes celebrated Saturday.

Henry B. Eyring, promoted last year to Hinckley's leadership circle, called him an optimist who was undaunted by difficult challenges and often responded with a smile and a simple phrase: "Oh, things will work out."

Hinckley was driven by his desire "to bless individuals with opportunity," Eyring said. "Always he thought of those with the least opportunity, the ordinary person struggling to cope with the difficulties of everyday life."

Hinckley loved to be among the faithful, visiting 150 countries and logging more than 250,000 miles.

Starting Thursday, mourners came in droves for a chance to walk by Hinckley's open casket. The church said 57,443 people attended two days of a public viewing — some standing in line for up to five hours to walk past the casket.

Hours before the funeral began, lines stretched out of Temple Square, where free tickets were distributed, and onto the sidewalk. Some people spent the night in freezing weather to get a pass, and volunteers distributed hot chocolate.

"There's nowhere else on Earth I'd rather be at this moment, even if it's freezing," said Michelle Miller of Salt Lake City, who was waiting to get in.

Politicians from Utah, Idaho, California, Arizona, Nevada and Oregon, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Mormon, attended the service.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, whose father once served in the church's highest leadership, and his wife, Anne, also attended.

In a final gesture, mourners waived white handkerchiefs as Hinckley's coffin left the conference center, repeating a gesture he often used to greet the crowds wherever he appeared.

Hinckley was buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery, alongside his wife. His successor is expected to be named this week.

Belief in reuniting with family
Many called the occasion bittersweet, saying they were sad for themselves, but comforted in their belief that the church president had been reunited with his wife, Marjorie, who died in 2004.

A ceremony performed inside Mormon temples binds families together for time and all eternity, said Jana Riess, a Mormon convert and the Cincinnati-based co-editor of "Mormonism for Dummies."

"I don't want to be too cliche, but this idea that Mormons hold fast to their eternal families makes an enormous difference in how they feel about death," Riess said.

Mormons also differ from other Christians in their belief that heaven will not be a place of rest, but one where the work of the church and individuals will continue — something Hinckley often mentioned in his speeches to members.