Bodies of Polish president, wife, flown to Krakow for traditional-laden burial

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Polish leader, wife flown to Krakow for burial

KRAKOW, Poland — The bodies of President Lech Kaczynski and his wife were flown from Warsaw to Krakow early Sunday for burial among Polish kings and poets at a tradition-laden ceremony that will be bereft of many world leaders whose travel plans were paralyzed by a plume of volcanic ash.

The state funeral had been expected to draw numerous world leaders, but many were forced to cancel — including President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — at the last minute because of the ever-expanding volcanic ash cloud, dangerous to airplane engines, that has enveloped Europe and closed nearly all of the continent’s airports since late Thursday.

Eight days after the Polish Air Force Tupelov 154 crashed on approach to Smolensk, Russia, killing the first couple and 94 others, the Kaczynskis’ coffins were flown by military transport from the capital after an all-night vigil at St. John’s Cathedral.

The bodies of the couple were driven slowly through Warsaw past places linked to Kaczynski’s life, including city hall, where he served as mayor of Warsaw, and a museum he championed on the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

Presidential Palace spokesman Jacek Sasin said the route was chosen for its symbolism as Kaczynski departs his native city for the last time.

The bodies were then placed on a military transport plane, which taxied slowly on the runway before taking off to Krakow. It flew below the volcanic ash plume.

The funeral Mass and burial begins at 2 p.m. (1200 GMT; 8 a.m. EDT) with a Mass conducted in Latin in the 13th-century St. Mary’s Basilica, a red-brick Gothic church set on a vast market square in Krakow’s Old Town.

The bodies of the first couple will then be 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.

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 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.

The first couple will be laid to rest together in a honey-hued sarcophagus made from Turkish alabaster in a crypt of the cathedral and it will be open to mourners after the ceremonies Sunday.

The decision to bury Kaczynski at Wawel sparked protests in recent days, with people saying that despite the national tragedy he still does not belong in the company of some of nation’s most august figures.

Karolina Reichel, 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 had good and bad qualities but now you shouldn’t say anything bad about the dead,” she said. “I am here to honor the president as well as all those who died.”

Among those buried there are Jozef Pilsudski; Romantic-era poet Adam Mickiewicz; Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a hero of the American Revolution and of Poland’s 1794 uprising against Russia’s occupation; and Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski, the exiled World War II leader who perished in a mysterious plane crash off Gibraltar in 1943.

AP Television News Produce Theodora Tongas contributed to this report.

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