Dec. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Czech ex-president Vaclav Havel, whose resistance to totalitarian regimes as a dissident playwright helped topple Communism in 1989, will be laid to rest today in a state funeral witnessed by world leaders, including David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Thousands of Czechs began gathering before sunrise in a light drizzle at Prague’s Hradcany Castle, where Havel will be remembered in a ceremony and mass beginning at 11:30 a.m. in the St. Vitus Cathedral, the country’s biggest church. Havel died in his sleep on Dec. 18 at the age of 75 after a long illness.
The largest state funeral in decades will cap a three-day period of mourning and is scheduled to begin with a minute of silence and tolling of church bells across the country of 10 million. Mourners 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.
Madeleine Albright, the Czech-born former U.S. Secretary of State, will speak at the funeral, along with Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and Czech President Vaclav Klaus.
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 Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa as friends.
A chain smoker until the mid-1990s, Havel had a history of lung problems dating back to his time in prison, where he didn’t 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, 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 will be taken following the ceremony to a crematorium and ultimately be interred along with first wife, Dasha, and family relatives in the Vinohradsky cemetery in a suburb of Prague, not far from the grave of writer Franz Kafka.
In the evening, Havel’s friends are planning a celebration in Prague’s Lucerna Hall, where many of the ex-president’s favorite musicians and actors will appear, including the Plastic People of the Universe, the band that Havel championed in the 1970s and ultimately served time in jail for defending.
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.
--Editors: Alan Crosby, James Gomez
To contact the reporters on this story: Douglas Lytle in Prague at firstname.lastname@example.org; Lenka Ponikelska in Prague at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: James M. Gomez at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Copyright 2015 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.