Elaborate State Funeral Held for Polish First Couple
Presidential Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, were killed when their Polish air force plane crashed.
People salute in front of the coffin of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski on Sunday, April 18, 2010 in Krakow, southern Poland. (Associated Press)
The couple's bodies were flown from Warsaw to Krakow early Sunday for the tradition-laden ceremony and burial in the nearby Wawel Cathedral, the final resting place for Poland's kings, poets and statesmen, including Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski, the exiled World War II leader who died in a mysterious plane crash off Gibraltar in 1943.
President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were among the leaders who canceled at the last minute because of the expanding volcanic ash cloud, dangerous to airplane engines, that has enveloped Europe and closed nearly all of the continent's airports since late Thursday.
"All the French people will be, in their thoughts, with the Polish people" on Sunday, Sarkozy said in a letter sent to acting President Bronislaw Komorowski expressing his regret for being unable to attend.
The volcanic ash from Iceland did not deter everyone. The leaders of Baltic and Balkan states, came by car for the stately event.
Polish police estimated the number of mourners in and around Krakow at nearly 150,000.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev flew by plane from Moscow for the funeral. His presence was a further sign of the warming ties between the two countries, which had been strained for centuries, most recently because of communism and the 1940 Katyn massacre.
Krakow Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz acknowledged those ties in remarks to the congregation, noting that the tragedy had given rise "to many layers of good between the people and nations."
"The sympathy and help we have received from Russian brothers has breathed new life into a hope for closer relations and reconciliation between our two Slavic nations," Dziwisz said. "I direct these words to the president of Russia."
Despite the dearth of global dignitaries, no one said the funeral should be postponed.
"I wouldn't move the funeral," said Bartek Kargol who was among thousands of people waiting for the event Krakow. "This event is for our president."
Christian Stoltner, a German student, said Poles need their time to mourn.
"One cannot do anything about the fact that there are ashes around now," he said. "The date was set and momentum was built and slowly it's time to find closure."
The funeral Mass was held at St. Mary's Basilica, a 13th-century red-brick Gothic church set on a vast market square in Krakow's Old Town.
Inside, scores of Poland's political elite were seated in the ancient pews, shoulder to shoulder with leaders from Estonia, Belarus, Armenia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine.
The Mass was led by Dziwisz. The Kaczynskis' daughter, Marta, and the president's twin brother, Jaroslaw, sat in the front row as Mozart's requiem was played.
"Memory and truth are stronger than the greatest tragedies," Janusz Sniadek, the chairman of the Solidarity trade union said. "The solidarity of Poles in these days of mourning is a tribute to you, your wife and all the victims."
After the Mass, the bodies of the first couple were carried atop a pair of artillery caissons pulled by army Humvees in a funeral procession led by the archbishop, priests and soldiers across the picturesque Renaissance old town and up the Wawel hill. That is the historic seat of kings where a fortress wall encircles a castle and a 1,000-year-old cathedral overlooks Vistula River.
As they made their way down the nearly mile-long (1.6-kilometer-long) route, the crowds waved Polish flags, clapped and chanted: "Lech Kaczynski! We thank you!"