Mormons are gathering at a funeral in Salt Lake City at the religion’s historic Tabernacle to honor the life of high-ranking church leader Robert D. Hales, who died at the age of 85.
Hales died Sunday from complications related to his age at a Salt Lake City hospital while Mormons were gathered for a twice-yearly conference in the city that is headquarters to a religion that counts nearly 16 million members around the world.
The funeral is set to begin at 11 a.m. at the Tabernacle, which has a capacity for 2,500.
Hales was a member of a top governing body called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles since 1994. The New York City native was a fighter pilot in the Air Force and business executive before going to help guide the church.
A replacement for Hales will be chosen at a later date, likely at the next church conference in April.
He is the fourth top leader to die in the last three years from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Fellow Quorum members Boyd K. Packer, L. Tom Perry and Richard G. Scott died in 2015.
Mormon leaders in the governing body serve until they die.
Five of the remaining top 14 leaders are at least 84 years old. Church President Thomas S. Monson, 90, missed last weekend’s conference due to his declining health. He hasn’t been going regularly to meetings at church offices because of limitations related to his age since May, church officials said.
The man next in line for the church presidency, Russell M. Nelson, is 93. He appeared in good health when he delivered a speech Saturday at the conference.
Hales was born in 1932 and grew up in Long Island in a Mormon family with a father who was an artist. As a high school baseball pitcher, he dreamed of playing in Major League Baseball. He never realized that dream, but he did get to throw out a first pitch at a Los Angeles Dodgers game in 2007 as part of Mormon Night at Dodgers Stadium.
Hales earned a business degree from the University of Utah and a master’s in business administration from Harvard University. He was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, where he picked up a phrase, “return with honor,” that he used in speeches.
Hales was 42 when he was called into full-time church service, leaving behind his business career. He had been president of the Paper Mate pen company and an executive at a television firm and at the manufacturing company that made Vaseline.
He worked his way up through church management tiers until he was called to Quorum of the Twelve Apostle in 1994.
Hales’ combination of experience in private business and deep roots in the religion made him emblematic of Mormon leaders of his era.
The Quorum is filled with men who left successful careers to fill what they consider a church calling. Other Quorum members included former Utah Supreme Court Justice Dallin H. Oaks and Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who was an executive with Lufthansa, the German airline. Nelson was a surgeon.
Hales died at a hospital surrounded by family in between conference sessions Sunday, leading to several tributes from fellow leaders.
“We will miss him. His wisdom and goodness have blessed our lives for many years,” said Henry B. Eyring, one of two top counselors to the church president.
Quorum member Neil L. Andersen shared part of a speech Hales had prepared before he was hospitalized and it became apparent he wouldn’t be able attend the conference.
“When we choose to have faith we are prepared to stand in the presence of God,” the speech read. “After the Savior’s crucifixion he appeared only to those who had been faithful in the testimony of him while they lived in mortality. Those who rejected the testimony of the prophets could not behold the Savior’s presence nor look up on his face. Our faith prepares us to be in the presence of God.”