PALM DESERT, Calif. - Borne by eight servicemen in crisp dress uniforms, Gerald R. Ford's flag-draped casket was carried past his widow into their hometown church on Friday for a public viewing that marked the start of six days of mourning for the former president.

Former first lady Betty Ford, 88, stood atop the broad steps of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church to receive the casket. A Marine Corps band struck up “Hail to the Chief” as the coffin of the Navy veteran of World War II was removed from a hearse, then played the hymn “O God Our Help in Ages Past” as the military pallbearers, moving in lockstep, made the slow climb to the doors of the white-columned church.

“We receive the body of our brother, Gerald, for burial,” said the church rector, the Rev. Robert Certain.

Mrs. Ford, clutching the arm of an Army general, stood in silence for a few moments after the casket was laid before a blond-wood altar and three wreaths of white flowers. Then she led other family members to the Presidents Pew, where she and her husband sat nearly every Sunday after leaving the White House in 1977.

The private family service was followed by a visitation for invited friends, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Rep. Jack Kemp and former California Gov. Pete Wilson. When it ended, Mrs. Ford left in a motorcade to return to the Ford home in the neighboring city of Rancho Mirage.

A public viewing expected to draw thousands to the resort community east of Los Angeles started late Friday.

Mourners ranging from children to the elderly walked through the church quickly.

Several men stopped and snapped salutes. One woman wore a red, white and blue scarf. No official count was kept, but buses carrying about 50 people each came and went steadily.

Earlier, a Boeing 747 from the presidential fleet descended in the distance toward Palm Springs airport as a motorcade brought Mr. Ford's casket and family to the church. As the procession passed, police saluted and residents of the desert resort community watched silently.

Mrs. Ford planned to accompany her husband's body across the country today to Washington, where the nation's 38th president will lie in state at the Capitol. A funeral will be held on Tuesday at the National Cathedral. Mr. Ford will be buried on Wednesday in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he grew up.

    Security was tight at St. Margaret's. The Secret Service swept the area, and surrounding residential streets were blocked off. Helicopters hovered overhead.

    A solemn crowd watched from well beyond the parking lot of the church, not far from the former president's Rancho Mirage home.