PRAGUE — Czechs are bidding an emotional farewell to Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who led their peaceful 1989 revolution that brought to an end decades of Communist rule.
Havel's wife Dagmar, family members, friends and leaders from dozens of countries gathered Friday at the towering, gothic St. Vitus Cathedral which overlooks Prague. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron were among some 1,000 mourners who bowed their heads in front of the coffin draped in the Czech colors.
At the end of the ceremony, Havel's coffin was to be carried through the cathedral's Golden Gate to Prague's Strasnice crematorium for a private family funeral. The urn with Havel's ashes will be buried at his family's plot at the city's Vinohrady cemetery alongside his first wife, Olga, who died in 1996.
Havel, who became president after the revolution and left office in 2003, died Sunday morning at his weekend home in the country's north. The 75-year-old former chain-smoker had a history of chronic respiratory problems, dating back to his time in prison.
Since his death, Czechs have gathered spontaneously to lay flowers and light candles at key historic sites such as the monument to the 1989 Velvet Revolution in downtown Prague, and at Wenceslas Square, where Havel once spoke before hundreds of thousands of people to express outrage at the repressive communist regime.
Similar scenes of remembrance played out across the country — in a show of emotion not seen since the 1937 funeral of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, Czechoslovakia's first president after the nation was founded in 1918.
"Europe owes Vaclav Havel a profound debt," Cameron said before departing from London. "Havel led the Czech people out of tyranny ... and he helped bring freedom and democracy to our entire continent."
Czechs packed a nearby courtyard at Prague Castle and an adjacent square to watch the funeral ceremony on giant screens.
Prague Archbishop Dominik Duka, who spent time in jail with Havel under Communism, was leading the funeral mass. He was joined by Vatican envoy Giovanni Coppa and bishop Vaclav Maly, Havel's friend and fellow dissident. Poland's former President Lech Walesa — who led the anti-communist Solidarity movement — also attended.
Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who was Havel's political archrival, and two friends — Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — were to pay tribute to Havel at the cathedral, which dates to the 10th century and has not witnessed a state funeral since 1875.
Braving the freezing cold, thousands of mourners have waited in long lines every day since Monday to file past Havel's coffin.
Several thousand people joined Havel's widow, relatives and friends in a somber procession through the capital Wednesday as Havel's body was transported to the Prague Castle.