Thousands of people followed Czech ex-President Vaclav Havel’s casket as it was transported through the narrow streets of Prague, opening three days of official mourning ahead of a state funeral on Dec. 23.
People jammed cobblestone streets in the city center today as Havel’s plain wooden coffin was loaded into a black Mercedes hearse for a short journey across the Vltava river and up the hill toward Hradcany Castle, the seat of the president.
The early-morning procession crossed through medieval streets and the Charles Bridge, built in 1357, one of the city’s prime attractions for tourists. Funeral wreaths sent by Havel’s family hung on the sides of the vehicle, which was followed by Havel’s widow Dagmar Havlova and his brother, Ivan.
Havel, who died in his sleep Dec. 18 at the age of 75 after a long illness, was a symbol for opposing totalitarian regimes in the former Soviet bloc and helped lead the nation to democracy following the Velvet Revolution that overthrew communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989. He was president for almost 13 years and counted figures including Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa as friends.
“This reminds me of the atmosphere of 1989 when people gathered to end Communism,” said Zdenek Lauschman, a 52-year-old teacher, who stood watching the hearse drive away. “It is also a reflection of what has happened in the last 20 years. Havel was the only one in politics who was decent and managed to remain in politics. He’s cut from a different cloth than other politicians.”
‘Truth and Love’
The streets around the funeral procession were lined with Czech flags, with some mourners in the procession carrying candles and photos of Havel in the cold morning light. A sign in the crowd read: “Truth and Love Will Triumph over Lies and Hatred,” one of Havel’s best-known citations. Black flags hung from state buildings as church bells tolled along the route and crowds applauded the hearse.
Havel’s casket was transferred under cloudy skies to a horse-drawn military caisson and accompanied by an honor guard and military band for the final ride through the castle grounds before being carried into the Gothic-Renaissance Vladislav Hall to lie in state until the funeral. President Vaclav Klaus accompanied the procession into the castle.
Diplomats and members of the government and parliament watched as Havel’s now flag-draped casket was set on a bier covered in blue velvet as candles burned throughout the hall, which is used for elections of the president and other state ceremonies. The Czech Philharmonic and choir played Antonin Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater” and selections from Josef Suk.
“Vaclav Havel’s name will also remain connected to the Velvet Revolution and the revival of freedom and democracy,” Klaus said in remarks made at the ceremony. “The figure of Vaclav Havel defies clear categorization and superficial assessment.”
Havel served as president of Czechoslovakia from the end of 1989 until 1992. In 1993, he became president of the Czech Republic, which was founded after the split of Czechoslovakia into two countries, a move he opposed. Havel was re-elected for his second and final term in early 1998 and left office in 2003.
During the state mourning period, casinos and smaller gaming halls will be closed and flags will fly at half mast. The state funeral at the castle which dates back to the Ninth Century is the largest of its kind in more than 30 years, with leaders such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former U.S. President Bill Clinton expected to attend.
While his official authority as president was limited by the Czech constitution, Havel used the presidency as a platform for building what he called a “civil society.”
In the years after the fall of communism in 1989, Havel’s reputation and his ideas brought international renown to his new country. He was a strong advocate for expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. Under his presidency, the Czech Republic became a NATO member in March 1999 and joined the EU in 2004.
“I came to witness this,” said Jiri Cvecek, a 30-year-old charity worker. “He was a great man who has to be honored by coming and showing that it is worth coming - it is a time to show solidarity and togetherness.”