Vaclav Havel, the humble Czech playwright who became his country's first democratically elected president after helping to topple communist rule, was remembered today for his enduring legacy of hope, freedom, and human rights.
The lavish state funeral at Prague Castle’s St. Vitus Cathedral started at noon with a moment of silence that seemed to bring the country to a standstill as church bells rang in honor of the dissident-turned-politician, who died on Dec. 18. Mr. Havel was a figurehead and leader of the peaceful Velvet Revolution of 1989, which brought an end to forty years of communist rule in then-Czechoslovakia.
“You feel like a big part of you is gone,” says a teary Kamila Brambukova, who was 19 when the Velvet Revolution broke out in 1989. “I don’t think he’s replaceable. He’s such an icon. There’s no one like him.”
While Havel’s friends and family shared the cathedral pews with leaders and dignitaries from around the world, a grieving public packed the courtyard and adjoining square early Friday to watch the service live on large screen projectors.
“We will miss him terribly, but we will never, ever forget him,” former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told mourners inside St. Vitus.
Havel spent five years in prison for his anti-communist writings and speeches. He was swept into power after the 1989 revolution, first as president of Czechoslovakia, then of the Czech Republic until 2003.
Representatives from more than 30 countries came to pay their respects Friday, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton; French President Nicolas Sarkozy; and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
A condolence letter from Pope Benedict XVI was read at the beginning of the two-hour service, hailing Havel for his contribution to democracy. “I remember how courageously Mr. Havel defended human rights at a time when those were systematically denied,” the Pope’s letter read.
As his flag-draped coffin was led out of the Castle, the crowds erupted into applause, some even saluting the fallen leader as cannons fired a 21-salvo salute from Petrin Hill.
In recent years, Czechs seemed to have lost interest in the man they had once revered, but Havel’s death sent shock waves through the country. While his domestic popularity waned after he left office eight years ago, his star never faded in the international community.
As tributes poured in from across Europe and the world, thousands of Czechs came out to give Havel a proper sendoff. They lit candles on Wenceslas Square, the site of the 1989 revolution, and waited in line for hours to place roses beside his coffin, moved earlier in the week to a former church in the city’s Old Town that Havel had converted into a popular cultural center. On Dec. 21, thousands more came out in freezing temperatures to trail the flower-ladened car carrying his body across Charles Bridge and up to Prague Castle, where it lay in state until today's funeral.
“He’s the main person who brought freedom back to our country,” says Roman Carek. “I wanted to thank him. I simply wanted to burn a candle for his soul and say a last goodbye.”
Someone else left a more direct message at a makeshift memorial outside Prague Castle’s main entrance. The handwritten note read, “The king has died, and there is no one else.”