An elaborate state funeral for Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria began Sunday bereft of many world leaders whose travel plans were paralyzed by the plume of volcanic ash that has covered Europe.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 Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, considered the founder of modern Poland.US 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, supposedly 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 did not deter everyone. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev flew by plane from Moscow for the funeral.
His presence was further sign of the warming ties between the two countries, which had been strained for centuries, and recently because of communism and the 1940 Katyn massacre.Others, including the leaders of Baltic and Balkan states, came by car for the stately event.Despite the dearth of global dignitaries, no one said the funeral should be postponed. The funeral Mass in Latin 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 Krakow Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz. The Kaczynskis' daughter, Marta, and the president's twin brother, Jaroslaw, sat in the front row as Mozart's Requiem was played.
After the Mass, the bodies of the first couple were carried in a funeral procession across the picturesque Renaissance old town and up the Wawel hill, the historic seat of kings where a fortress wall encircles a castle and 1,000-year-old cathedral overlooking the Vistula River.The funeral was eight days after the Polish Air Force Tupolev 154 crashed on approach to Smolensk, Russia, killing the first couple and 94 others.Ahead of the Mass, scores of people flocked to a memorial at the base of Wawel hill to pay tribute to those who died, leaving flowers and candles.Pictures of Kaczynski and his wife, as well as other victims, could be seen amid candles and flowers left by mourners who came to pay their respects.Last Saturday's crash — which investigators have said was likely because of human error — plunged Poland into a deep grief not seen since the death of Pope John Paul II five years ago.The first couple will be laid to rest together in a honey-huedsarcophagus made from Turkish alabaster in a crypt of the cathedral andit will be open to mourners after the ceremonies Sunday.Thedecision to bury Kaczynski at Wawel sparked protests in recent days,with people saying that despite the national tragedy he still does notbelong in the company of some of the nation's most august figures. KarolinaRajchel, 19, a student who traveled five hours from Wroclaw, said shehad not supported every step that Kaczynski took, but called theprotests "out of place" in light of his death.