(Salt Lake City) — Thousands of mourners streamed into the Mormon church’s conference center on Saturday for the funeral of the faith’s beloved president Gordon B. Hinckley.

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Hinckley died Sunday at the age of 97, the oldest leader of the 13 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Hours before the funeral began, lines stretched out of the Temple Square — where free tickets were being distributed — and onto the sidewalk. Some people had been there overnight in the freezing weather. There was quiet conversation and hymns were being piped outdoors. Volunteers passed out cups of 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, who was waiting to get in.

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The funeral will be held in the church’s 21,000-seat downtown conference center, which was built during Hinckley’s tenure to accommodate the growing church. Overflow seating will be available in the Salt Lake Tabernacle and at least two other buildings.

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

The funeral will include remembrances from Hinckley’s children and other church leaders, as well as a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

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.

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.”

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

By AP/JENNIFER DOBNER (Saturday Feb.2, 2008)