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Thousands Attend Mormon Church President's Salt Lake Funeral

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.

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Thousands of people, including some who waited overnight, packed the conference center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, capping a week of mourning for Gordon B. Hinckley. He died Sunday at age 97 after leading the worldwide church for nearly 13 years.

Thomas S. Monson, next in line to succeed Hinckley, spoke twice during the service, and described his friend as a "prophet to the people."

God sometimes places a "giant among men," Monson said. "President Hinckley was such a giant.

"He was our prophet, seer and revelator. He was an island of calm in a sea of storm. He was a lighthouse to the lost mariner. ... He comforted and calmed us when conditions in the world were frightening," Monson said.

During Hinckley's presidency, which began in 1995, the church experienced unprecedented worldwide growth, expanding to 13 million members in 160 countries. He established an education fund to help returned missionaries, grew the church's humanitarian work and built dozens of temples around the world.

"Disciplined and courageous, with an unbelievable capacity for work, he believed in growth," daughter Virginia H. Pearce said.

Next week, the church will dedicated its 125th temple, in Rexburg, Idaho, one of more than 75 built under Hinckley's direction.

"President Hinckley was about miracles," a senior bishop, H. David Burton, said as he spoke about temples and other milestones.

The world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang "My Redeemer Lives" to open the funeral in the 21,000-seat downtown conference center, one of four hymns during the 90-minute service.

Overflow seating was available in the Salt Lake Tabernacle and at least two other buildings. The service could be heard through speakers outdoors on Temple Square.

Hours before the funeral began, lines stretched out of the square, where free tickets were being 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.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, took time off the campaign trail to attend the funeral. Politicians from Utah, Idaho, California, Arizona, Nevada and Oregon attended, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, also a Mormon.

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

On Friday, faithful Latter-day Saints came by the thousands — some standing in line for nearly three hours — to walk by Hinckley's open casket to pay their respects during two days of public mourning, which drew 57,443 people, according to the church.

Many in attendance 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.

"We have things to do. Mormonism is a religion of activity and of mission," Riess said. "Part of that mission will be taking place in the afterlife. We believe people will still have the opportunity to make spiritual choices."