SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) — In the same auditorium where thousands used to rise as Mormon leader Thomas S. Monson entered, a steady stream of mourners filed by his open casket and paid their last respects.
Monson, who led the 16-million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died Jan. 2 at age 90 after months of declining health. An apostle since 1963, he became president in 2008.
Overseas visitors and LDS missionaries, along with church headquarters staff, were among the early mourners who attended the viewing on Thursday (Jan. 11) at the church’s 21,000-seat Conference Center, where the church’s biannual general conferences are held, as well as concerts of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Visitors were escorted in groups of several dozen at a time to a foyer where they could view the open casket in which Monson, dressed in a white suit, white shirt and white tie, lay in repose.
Monson was considered a prophet who received revelation from God for the entire LDS Church in an unbroken line of priesthood authority stretching back to its first prophet, Joseph Smith.
Jessica Nelson, 25, who works in the Church History department, said she came pay respects to her employer, and because “I don’t know when I’ll have the chance to do this again.”
Nelson, who just completed a master’s degree in history and is contemplating doctoral studies, said Monson’s initiative to lower the missionary age for young men and young women was the “biggest thing” she would remember about his presidency. The change allowed her younger brother, Joseph, to serve an LDS mission at age 18, she said.
Asked about her hopes for the next president, expected to be Russell M. Nelson, 93, who now heads the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Jessica Nelson – who said she is not related – responded: “LGBTQ issues are not going to go away.”
She added that if he reversed the November 2015 policy announcement denying baby blessings and baptisms to children of same-sex married couples, “that would be a step in the right direction.”
Sarah Quisenberry, 18, of Salem, Utah, around 60 miles south of Salt Lake City, expressed a similar view.
“I would expect more social outreach” to gays from a Nelson presidency, she said, noting the church’s support of the August 2017 LoveLoud Fest concert in Provo, which raised money for at-risk LGBTQ youth.
Quisenberry also said she hoped Nelson and church leaders would address the “gender wage gap” in society, saying it was one of “great issues” for the church to take on.
One man cited a direct connection to Monson for why he came.
Stephen Forrest King, 70, from Salt Lake City, spent 13 1/2 years in prison on a felony conviction, and after completing parole, received approval from Monson to be rebaptized as an LDS Church member.
“My stake president said others had been waiting longer for approvals, but I was one of the few allowed at that time,” King said of the August 2017 letter.
LDS missionary Sister Marie-Claude Etter, 72, a Haitian from the coastal city of Miragoâne, said Monson “was a prophet of God, proving it through his life, in the way he cared for people.”
She said she expected Nelson to “work together” with church leaders and members, “harmoniously and spiritually.” Asked if she expected Nelson to deal with social issues, Etter said, “I leave it up to him to decide” those matters.
A pipe stress engineer from London, England, Sunil Bhola flew to Salt Lake City to attend Monson’s funeral, scheduled for Friday.
“I just wanted to honor the prophet by visiting him and thanking him for his service,” Bhola, 48, said. Of Monson’s expected successor, Bhola said he had no specific expectations: “Prophets give themselves in service. They serve God and see what the needs are.”