Though Thomas S. Monson sat atop a church with millions of members worldwide, his one-hour funeral Friday was filled with tales of an epic, one-on-one ministry.
Monson’s daughter, Ann Dibb, told thousands gathered at the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City of an elderly man in a wheelchair who wanted more than a handshake from the LDS “prophet, seer and revelator.”
“Without hesitation,” Dibb said, “Dad bent down and tenderly embraced this dear man.”
Henry B. Eyring, Monson’s first counselor in the governing First Presidency, described how the folksy orator would visit one person in need and, while there, feel a divine tug to attend to another and another, in a chain of healing and helping.
Dieter F. Uchtdorf, the second counselor, recounted how Monson once walked up five flights of stairs after painful foot surgery to visit a bedridden friend in Hamburg, Germany.
Senior apostle Russell M. Nelson choked up as he declared: “There will never be another like him.”
Nelson, Monson’s likely successor to head The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, presided over the service and offered the concluding sermon, detailing the legacy of the late LDS leader, who died Jan. 2 at 90.
“We are all better because of him,” said the prophet-in-waiting, looking hale and energetic despite his 93 years. “And the church is better because of him.”
When Monson became an apostle in 1963, the Utah based-faith had 2.1 million members compared with nearly 16 million today, Nelson said. “The number of currently serving missionaries has grown from 5,700 to more than 70,000. And temples — then only 12 in number — now number 159, and more are coming.”
Still, Nelson said, Monson most likely will be known for his legacy of personal charity and pastoral care: “[He] constantly focused on the individual. He reminded us with expressions such as: ‘Send a note to the friend you’ve been neglecting’; ‘Give your child a hug’; ‘Say “I love you” more often’; ‘Always express your thanks’; and ‘Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved.’”
Monson never “sought the limelight,” Nelson said. “In a world saturated with ‘selfies,’ he modeled selflessness.”
The former heart surgeon concluded with a story about accompanying Monson on a trip to then-East Germany, seeking to open missionary work in the communist country.
“This critical meeting was held on the gray and dreary day of October 28, 1988. We met with Erich Honecker, chairman of the state council for the German Democratic Republic and his staff. He started with a long speech about the merits of communism — all we could do was listen,” Nelson recalled.
“Then, under the flashing of countless cameras, President Monson . . . boldly but kindly presented his message of how and why our missionaries would be good for that country,” he added. “All awaited Chairman Honecker’s response with breathless anxiety. I will never forget his reply: ‘President Monson, we know you! We have watched you for many years. We trust you. Your request regarding missionaries is approved.’”
Afterward, despite the dreary atmosphere behind the Iron Curtain, Nelson and Monson were elated: “As we left that meeting, clouds parted for a moment and the sun shone brightly upon us. It seemed that heaven was showing approval upon what had just transpired.”
The funeral began shortly before noon as pallbearers, accompanied by pipe organ music, wheeled the bier onto the dais. To the left, a folded U.S. flag sat as a symbolic sentinel, recognizing Monson’s military service. Both sides of the multileveled stand were decked out in flower arrangements, including ones featuring a “Y” for LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, a “U,” for the University of Utah, where the deceased president had earned a degree, and one with Canada’s maple-leaf banner, representing the country where a young Monson served as a Mormon mission president.
The vast hall’s lower sections were packed, but many seats were vacant in the upper tiers for Friday’s workday service.
After the invocation by apostle M. Russell Ballard, the first speaker was Dibb, a former counselor in the faith’s Young Women general presidency.
“Dear father, it has been a sacred blessing and an honor to watch after you as my devoted mother [Frances] requested. I know we have had ‘angels round about us to bear us up,’” she said, addressing his casket.
Dibb noted that, although her father was considered a prophet, “he was not perfect.”
About a year ago, she said, he was working at his office and spied a copy of the church’s official Ensign magazine, which was open to a photo of him.
“My father pointed to the picture,” she recalled, “and said, ‘I know that guy. He tried his best.’”
Uchtdorf called his longtime friend “a spiritual giant.”
He “abounded in knowledge, faith, love, vision, testimony, courage and compassion,” the German apostle said, “leading and serving never from a pedestal, but always eye to eye.”
The Mormon faithful “will miss his voice, his steadiness, his confidence in the Lord, his smile, his wit, his enthusiasm, his optimism and his stories,” Uchtdorf said, “which I consider parables of a modern prophet of God.”
It has been “a most satisfying and spiritually rewarding experience,” he said, “to serve as one of President Monson’s counselors.”
Eyring was with Monson’s family at the president’s deathbed.
“As I looked on his face, I thought that the Lord’s promise was being fulfilled. He had been surrounded and borne up by human angels — and perhaps more,” Eyring said. “I felt the assurance that the resurrected Lord, who has gone before him into the spirit world, waited with outstretched arms.”
The funeral concluded with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s performance of the hymn “If the Way Be Full of Trial, Weary Not” and a benediction from apostle Jeffrey R. Holland.
“We thank thee for the gift of Thomas Spencer Monson,” Holland prayed. “ … We will cherish forever the wisdom of his teachings and the example of his life. ... May we, without ever being weary, go forward and do good.”
A range of leaders from other faiths also attended, including Bishop Oscar A. Solis and Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, Imam Muhammed Mehtar of the Khadeeja Islamic Center in West Valley City and the Rev. France Davis, longtime pastor of Salt Lake City’s Calvary Baptist Church.
At the front were political dignitaries, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. A few rows behind them was former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, seated between former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and prominent developer Kem Gardner. Before the service, Romney, whom many expect to run for Hatch’s seat, moved up to shake hands with the senior senator and Herbert.
Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada, along with Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and Mia Love, and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox — all of whom are Mormon — also showed up.
Farther back were Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and a number of Utah legislators.
After the service, the funeral cortege, led by a phalanx of police motorcycles with flashing lights, made its way up South Temple, where groups of mourners watched in reverent silence and the bells of the Cathedral of the Madeleine tolled as a tribute.
It then moved to the historic Salt Lake City Cemetery, where the late LDS leader was buried in a private service at the side of his beloved wife, Frances, who died in 2013, and not far from a number of previous Mormon prophets.
Columnist Robert Gehrke and news editor David Noyce contributed to this story.