KRAKOW, Poland — Some 150,000 Poles paid their last respects to Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, as the couple were interred Sunday among kings, poets and statesmen in the ancient Wawel Cathedral in an ornate, traditional ceremony.
Many world leaders failed to attend due to the enormous plume of volcanic ash that blanketed Europe.
President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were among those who canceled at the last minute.
The volcanic ash from Iceland did not deter everyone. 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.The tragedy has moved the Kremlin to make amends
The leaders of Baltic and Balkan states came by car for the stately
event. Czech President Vaclav Klaus took the train and car to get to
Krakow. Also among those present were Ukrainian President Viktor
Yushchenko, and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Polish police estimated the number of mourners in
Krakow at nearly 150,000.
Krakow Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz acknowledged those new ties in remarks to the congregation at the state funeral, 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.
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. 40 thousand crowded the market square outside.
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, granddaughter Ewa and the president's twin brother, Jaroslaw, sat nearby the two flag-draped coffins 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. Wawel 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!"
Twenty monks rang the massive Zygmunt Bell inside the Wawel Cathedral, its pealing echoing across Krakow.
The first couple were interred together in a honey-hued sarcophagus made from Turkish alabaster in a crypt under the cathedral's Silver Bells Tower. Afterward, a battery of cannon fired 21 volleys, smoke pouring from their barrels as mourners watched.
The decision to bury Kaczynski at Wawel sparked protests in recent days, with some people saying that despite the national tragedy he still does not belong in the company of some of the nation's most august figures. The hue and cry over the decision even spilled over to Facebook where thousands said the decision was not right.
Karolina Rajchel, 19, a student who traveled five hours from Wroclaw, said she had not supported every step that Kaczynski took, but called the protests "out of place" in light of his death.
Kaczynski, a lawyer, served as an adviser to Solidarity trade union and was jailed during 1981's martial law by the communist government.
Sunday's funeral came eight days after the Polish air force Tupolev 154
crashed on approach to Smolensk, Russia, killing the first couple and
The April 10 plane crash — which investigators in Russia and Poland
have said was likely because of human error — plunged the country into
a deep grief not seen since the death of Pope John Paul II five years
The plane went down in heavy fog after clipping a birch tree on
approach to Smolensk, Russia. Those aboard had planned to attend a
memorial for thousands of Polish army officers executed in 1940 by
Josef Stalin's secret police.
Besides the first couple, the crash also claimed the lives of several
notable Poles, including Anna Walentynowicz, a leader of the Solidarity
freedom movement; Gen. Tadeusz Buk, the commander of Poland's land
forces and a former commander of Polish troops in Iraq; Janusz Kurtyka,
the head of the state-run historical institute which investigates
communist-era crimes; and Janusz Kochanowski, the civil rights
Now is the time to join the news event of the year - The Jerusalem Post Annual Conference!
For more information and to sign up, click here>>