Ceremony and symbolism as Czechs mourn Havel

New York Times News Service /


Published Dec 24, 2011 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

PRAGUE — Mourners filled the historic St. Vitus Cathedral here Friday and gathered outside by the thousands on a frigid December morning for the funeral Mass of the playwright, dissident and former president Vaclav Havel, an emotional outpouring of affection that largely eluded him in his later life.

From a horse-drawn carriage for his coffin at Wednesday’s procession to Prague Castle to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra playing Dvorak’s “Requiem” on Friday, the government spared no expense to honor Havel, who died Sunday at the age of 75.

Over the three days of official mourning, Czechs have relived parts of the Velvet Revolution that Havel led. After perhaps overstaying his welcome in nearly 13 years as president, first of Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic, Havel’s demise appeared to revive a long-neglected attachment, visible now in the votive candles, flowers and handwritten thank-yous on everything from scraps of paper to bed sheets popping up at makeshift memorials.

“He was a light, is a light and will be a light for many of us,” said Martina Utikalova, 47, a midwife from Kladno who joined thousands of Czechs under large video screens and loudspeakers to watch his funeral Mass at the cathedral.

Over her blue scarf she wore a bright red heart-shaped pendant, like the one Havel drew next to his signature. The symbol is everywhere here in the Czech capital since his death, on memorial billboards, television screens and handmade tributes in store windows.

“Many ridiculed Havel for his words about truth and love,” said Karel Schwarzenberg, the Czech Republic’s foreign minister, in his eulogy Friday. “Yet it is the essence of the human struggle. And we must never give up that struggle,” said Schwarzenberg, who had served as Havel’s chancellor.