About 2,500 people came yesterday to pay final homage to J. Willard Marriott, a man who had lived the American Dream.

In the shadow of the white marble and golden-spired Mormon Temple in Kensington, elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, J.W. (Bill) Marriott Jr., Marriott's eldest son and head of the food service and hotel empire his father had built, former president Nixon and other dignitaries extolled Marriott for an hour and a half.

Marriott died Tuesday evening of an apparent heart attack after a family cookout at his summer retreat in New Hampshire. All the members of his close-knit family except two of his eight grandchildren were at his side. Yesterday, one month short of his 85th birthday, he was buried in a mahogany casket at Parklawn Memorial Park cemetery in Rockville.

But first there were the tributes, warm and touching words of love and friendship from some of the United States' past and present power elite. "How strange it is that so small a coffin can hold so large a piece of all of our lives," said Mark Evans Austad, former U.S. ambassador to Norway and Finland, his voice cracking with emotion.

Like other speakers who followed him, Austad spoke of Marriott in deeply personal terms, emphasizing the closeness of his relationship with "Allie," his wife of 58 years with whom he opened in 1927 a nine-stool root beer stand that has grown into the $3.5 billion Marriott Corp., hallmarked by inns that bear their name.

Newly married, J.W. and Alice Marriott arrived in Washington 58 years ago to open an A&W Root Beer soda fountain at 14th Street and Park Road NW. When the cool drinks' popularity faded in the colder temperatures of the fall, the Marriotts added a menu of Mexican food and called the restaurant Hot Shoppe. Today, the family empire has stretched to include 143 Marriott hotels, more than 1,400 fast food restaurants and more than 140,000 employes.

A deeply religious couple, the Marriotts gave the traditional biblical tithe -- or 10 percent -- of their income to the Mormon Church, in which Marriott was active throughout his life. Dressed in a simple black dress and white jacket, Alice Marriott sat quietly and composed with other family members in front of her husband's red rose-draped coffin during the service.

The audience, estimated by a spokesman for Joseph Gawler's Sons funeral home at 2,500, included Roy Rogers, the famous film cowboy who is known to the newest generation of Americans by the Marriott hamburger restaurants that bear his name, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Rep. Eldon Rudd (R-Ariz.).

Nixon, 73, who said he had "benefited from Marriott's friendship and wise counsel for over 35 years," talked of qualities he admired in Marriott -- "always thinking of others, not himself. His contagious enthusiasm, his love of life . . . of family . . . of his fellow man."

Nixon said that when Marriott's wife had called him to tell him of her husband's death, he had tried "to think of what Bill Marriott's greatest legacy is." Then the former president, for whom Marriott had served as inaugural committee chairman in 1969 and in 1973, listed his friend's various legacies -- among them "his raw physical and personal courage . . . one of the most successful businessmen of the century . . . his enormous generosity to great charitable causes."

"And I think in a very personal sense, all of us who had the privilege to know him would think that his legacy was the man himself -- what a wonderful human being he was," Nixon continued, smiling from the podium to Marriott's family in the front row. "Every time you talked to him, he gave you a lift. I called him, I remember, when he'd had a heart attack and asked him how he was. He said, 'How are you?' " Nixon recounted to laughter from the audience.

"Bill would have liked to be remembered for his family -- what he left behind," Nixon concluded.

But Marriott's memory was perhaps most graphically evoked by another Mormon in his eighties, Ezra Taft Benson, president of of the Mormon Council of Twelve Apostles. "My soul is subdued and my feelings tender," Benson said. Then he recounted memories of Marriott, whom he called "a noble man, a man without guile."

Eschewing the scripture quotations favored by the Rev. Billy Graham, who preceded him, Benson, in a voice racked by emotion and age, read in final tribute to his friend the poem "A Real Man," which said, "He was the kind of man I'd like to be."

The voices of the 40 women of the Stake Relief Society Chorus marked the end of the ceremony. "It's very subdued, very subdued," commented a gray-haired woman who had wept softly through much of the memorial service.

Then, several hundred people -- excluding Nixon, Graham and Rogers -- drove to the cemetery.

Guided by dozens of white-gloved Montgomery County police officers, the funeral procession snaked for two miles from the from the Mormon Temple off Beach Drive, north on Connecticut Avenue to Viers Mill Road and the cemetery. There, former Michigan governor George Romney, a Mormon, dedicated the grave.

Saturday shoppers and errand-runners, slowed by the funeral procession, stared along the route. Remarked a gas station attendant who watched the procession as he pumped gas in the summer heat: "The man whose funeral that was, you know he started as a poor sheep farmer out West, bought into an A&W root beer stand with nine stools and died a billionaire."