Former Czech president Vaclav Havel, whose resistance to totalitarian regimes helped topple communism in 1989, was remembered at a mass attended by world leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, former US president Bill Clinton and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Bells tolled across the Czech Republic at noon as citizens paused to observe a minute of silence for Havel, a dissident playwright who died in his sleep on Sunday at the age of 75 after a long illness. Thousands began gathering before sunrise in a light drizzle at Prague’s St Vitus Cathedral inside Hradcany Castle.
Havel’s widow, Dagmar Havlova, clad in a black veil, was seated next to Czech President Vaclav Klaus in the front pew as the Czech National Philarmonic played selections from Antonin Dvorak’s Requiem and Handel’s Messiah. A message from Pope Benedict XVI was read as hundreds who were not able to be seated in the church, the country’s largest, watched on large plasma screens outside.
“The pope always admired Vaclav Havel,” a Vatican representative said at the beginning of the ceremony.
The pope recalled “Havel’s courage in defending human rights at a time when they were systematically trampled upon.”
The largest state funeral in decades caps a three-day period of mourning in the country of 10 million. People waited for hours to view Havel’s plain wooden casket covered in the Czech tri-colored flag in the Vladislav Hall inside the castle grounds before it was moved to the Gothic-Renaissance cathedral earlier today.
Havel was president for almost 13 years, first as head of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic after the peaceful split of the country with Slovakia in 1993. He counted figures including former South African president Nelson Mandela and former Polish president Lech Walesa, who was present for today’s funeral, as friends.
Czech-born former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright was to speak at the funeral, along with Klaus and Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.
A chain smoker until the mid-1990s, Havel had a history of lung problems dating back to his time in prison, where he did not receive proper treatment. He suffered repeated bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia and underwent an operation in December 1996 that removed a small malignant tumor along with a part of his lung.
As one of history’s only philosopher-presidents, who also loved the theater of the absurd, he sought to educate his fellow citizens in speeches and regular radio addresses about how a democracy was supposed to function.
“I came because I am a veteran from Narodni Trida, where it all started in 1989,” said Jiri Cerny, an economist from Prague, referring to a confrontation with police that sparked the Velvet Revolution in November 1989. “I came to honor and thank the man who became a moral authority and whose reputation stretches far beyond the Czech Republic. This is the symbolic end of what happened in 1989.”
Havel’s remains were to be taken following the ceremony to a crematorium and ultimately be interred along with first wife, Olga, and family relatives in the Vinohradsky cemetery in a suburb of Prague, not far from the grave of Franz Kafka.