SALT LAKE CITY – Hundreds of Mormon faithful flocked to view church President Gordon B. Hinckley's body to begin three days of public mourning for their leader, capped by a funeral Saturday.
"He definitely makes you want to be a better person," said Michelle McAllister, 21, who arrived in the early-morning cold Thursday for the viewing at the conference center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "He's recognized everywhere for being such a kind person and a good example of optimism."
Hinckley died Sunday at age 97 after nearly 13 years as president of the church.
His body was dressed in a white suit in an open casket in the conference center's Hall of Prophets, where bronze busts of each church president line the walls.
From the elderly to infants in their mothers' arms, mourners moved silently past both sides of the dark wood casket, which was surrounded by flowers. Some were stone-faced while others dabbed at tears.
The church scheduled 20 hours of viewing Thursday and Friday but extended the schedule Thursday evening because 3,000 people were still waiting. More than 16,000 mourners visited during the day, church event manager Doug Balls said.
Josh Rich clutched an envelope as he paid his last respects to Hinckley. Inside the envelope, 9-year-old Josh had a hand-drawing of Heaven and a letter he wrote to the man he revered as prophet of his religion. Josh scrawled a message at the top of the drawing that read: "You passed the test. Welcome home."
"I did it to tell him I loved him and that he'd done a lot of things for us," the boy said.
Hinckley's eldest son, Richard, who runs the church missionary department, greeted people who offered their condolences; another son, Clark Hinckley, and his wife, Kathy, met with the mourners later in the day.
"We feel their sustaining prayers," she said.
Josh's mother, Jill Rich, said it was the third time she had attended a viewing for a deceased church president. Mormons consider their leader a "prophet, seer and revelator" who communicates with God.
"Next to (church founder) Joseph Smith, I think Gordon B. Hinckley has done the most for our church," Jill Rich said. "He broadened the church and the membership has had greater expansion, and he built the temples."
A deep reverence for Hinckley was evident in the hall, although most people had never met him. Outside, people shared memories and talked about the qualities they loved in him.
"I think he make it evident to us that he was just a normal person and he lived a very normal life, but he was a prophet," said Donna Gonzales of Lehi.
"No ego, no pretentiousness," she said. "You just felt like you kind of knew him and he always had that twinkle in his eye."
The funeral will be held in the church's 21,000-seat conference center, which was built during Hinckley's presidency to accommodate the growing church, now at 13 million members.
Burial will follow in a Salt Lake City cemetery, where Hinckley's wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley, is buried. She died in 2004.