Leaders miss funeral for Poland's first couple

KRAKOW, Poland — The state funeral for Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, ended up being more of a domestic affair than planned as the plume of ash from Iceland's erupting volcano continue to play havoc with European air travel.

“I spoke with acting President Komorowski and told him that I regret that I will not be able to make it to Poland due to the volcanic ash that is disrupting air travel over Europe,” said a statement from President Barack Obama, forced to cancel his trip due to the threat to aviation of the hazardous ash cloud from Eyjafjallajokull.

About 50 of the more than 80 invited delegations did not show up, including those of the leaders of the European Union, Britain’s Prince Charles, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy.

Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, did fly to Krakow for the funeral, an important gesture to Poland in light of the fact that the air disaster that killed the Kaczynskis and 94 others took place in the western Russian city of Smolensk. The Polish delegation had been heading to the nearby Katyn forest, one of the locations where in 1940 the Soviets executed about 22,000 Polish officers, to take part in commemoration ceremonies.

The crash has brought the Katyn massacre to the attention of the world, said Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of parliament and acting president, in a speech immediately after the funeral mass. However, it may also help Poland and Russia overcome the poison that Katyn has injected into relations over the last 70 years.

Kaczynski's death meant the president didn't have a chance to give a planned speech calling for the “wound of Katyn of finally heal,” said Komorowski as Medvedev looked on. “We have hope based on the words and gestures of Russian society, words and gestures for the president of the country who is present in Krakow, and the prime minister of Russia as well as many examples of warmth and understanding of the enormity of the tragedy from Russian people, which we treasure.”

The pomp-filled funeral marked the end of a week of mourning: Normal political conflict has been quieted, television and newspapers report on almost nothing but funerals and obituaries, and even bank websites have lost their color, instead appearing in funereal blacks and grays.

The ceremony began with the morning arrival in Krakow of the caskets carrying the Kaczynskis on a low-flying military flight from Warsaw, where they had lain in state for much of the last week. They were driven to the center of the ancient city as hundreds of onlookers tossed flowers at the hearses.

Inside the medieval St. Mary’s basilica, foreign and domestic dignitaries crowded in to attend a mass by Stanislaw Dziwisz, the cardinal of Krakow, assisted by dozens of purple-clad bishops.

Outside, more than 100,000 sombre onlookers watched the ceremonies on wide-screen televisions set up in the Krakow market square.

After the mass, the caskets were placed on artillery carriages pulled by green Humvees to the nearby Wawel castle, where the Kaczynskis were buried in crypts containing the graves of Polish kings, queens and national heroes as a 21-gun salute sounded.

“It’s difficult to put the last week into words, this has been a dramatic time for me and for the country,” said Jacek Barburski, a heavyset man wearing a blue suit, as he watched slow-stepping soldiers slowly march out of the town square ahead of the caskets.

The surprising decision to bury Kaczynski in the Wawel crypts caused enormous controversy in Poland, fraying the national unity that had enveloped the country as soon as it became clear that the air disaster had deprived Poland of its president and many other leaders. Opponents felt that Kaczynski, who did not have a successful presidency, was not worthy of the honor simply because he had died in an accident in a historically significant place. But many of those in Sunday’s crowd were pleased.

“He was an excellent president — his values were mine,” said Jadwiga Daszowska, holding a large red and white Polish national flag adorned with a black ribbon of mourning.

Although the official period of mourning is over, Polish life will still be dominated by funerals for the next week or two. As well, 21 of the dead are still in Moscow as their remains have not been positively identified due to the extreme forces that ripped apart the Polish Tu-154 airliner as it plunged into the ground just short of the runway in Smolensk.