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Bodies of Polish president, wife, flown to Krakow

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People stand along a street as hearses carrying the coffins of the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria Kaczynska arrive in Krakaow, southern Poland, Sunday, April 18, 2010.

KRAKOW  (CTV.CA)  — The bodies of President Lech Kaczynski and his wife were flown from Warsaw to Krakow early Sunday for burial among Polish kings and poets at a tradition-laden ceremony that will be bereft of many world leaders whose travel plans were paralyzed by a plume of volcanic ash.

The state funeral had been expected to draw numerous world leaders, but many were forced to cancel — including President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — at the last minute because of the ever-expanding volcanic ash cloud, dangerous to airplane engines, that has enveloped Europe and closed nearly all of the continent’s airports since late Thursday.

Several leaders from the Baltics and Balkans came by car and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev flew from Moscow.

Despite the dearth of global dignitaries, no one said the funeral should be postponed.

“I wouldn’t move the funeral,” said Bartek Kargol who was among thousands of people in Krakow. “This event is for our president.”

Christian Stoltner, a German student, said Poles need their time to mourn.

“One cannot do anything about the fact that there are ashes around now,” he said. “The date was set and momentum was built and slowly it’s time to find closure.”

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People carrying flags gather on Krakow’s market square in front of the Basilica of Our Lady prior to the funeral ceremony for late Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria on April 18, 2010.

Eight days after the Polish Air Force Tupolev 154 crashed on approach to Smolensk, Russia, killing the first couple and 94 others, the Kaczynskis’ coffins were flown by military transport from the capital after an all-night vigil at St. John’s Cathedral.

The bodies of the couple were driven slowly through Warsaw past places linked to Kaczynski’s life, including city hall, where he served as mayor of Warsaw, and a museum he championed on the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

Presidential Palace spokesman Jacek Sasin said the route was chosen for its symbolism as Kaczynski departs his native city for the last time.

The bodies were then placed on a military transport plane, which taxied slowly on the runway before taking off to Krakow. It flew below the volcanic ash plume.

In Krakow, the bodies were taken by hearse to St. Mary’s Basilica, a red-brick Gothic church set on a vast market square in the Old Town in preparation for a funeral Mass conducted in Latin at the 13th-century church at 2 p.m. (1200 GMT; 8 a.m. EDT).

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KRAKOW, POLAND – APRIL 18: Mourners gather on Market Square prior to memorial service on April 18, 2010 in Krakow, Poland.

Along the way thousands of mourners lined the streets and many tossed bouqets of flowers on the slow-going funeral cortege.

After the Mass, the bodies of the first couple will be carried in a funeral procession across the picturesque Renaissance old town and up the Wawel hill, the historic seat of kings where a fortress wall encircles a castle and 1,000-year-old cathedral.

Late Saturday, scores of people flocked to a memorial at the base of Wawel hill to pay tribute to those who died.

Pictures of Kaczynski and his wife, as well as other victims, could be seen amid candles and flowers left by mourners who came to pay their respects.

Last Saturday’s crash — which investigators have said was likely because of human error — plunged Poland into a deep grief not seen since the death of Pope John Paul II five years ago.

The plane went down in heavy fog after clipping a birch tree on approach to Smolensk, Russia. Those aboard had planned to attend a memorial for thousands of Polish army officers executed in 1940 by Josef Stalin’s secret police.

The first couple will be laid to rest together in a honey-hued sarcophagus made from Turkish alabaster in a crypt of the cathedral and it will be open to mourners after the ceremonies Sunday.

The decision to bury Kaczynski at Wawel sparked protests in recent days, with people saying that despite the national tragedy he still does not belong in the company of some of nation’s most august figures.

Among those buried there are Jozef Pilsudski; Romantic-era poet Adam Mickiewicz; Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a hero of the American Revolution and of Poland’s 1794 uprising against Russia’s occupation; and Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski, the exiled World War II leader who perished in a mysterious plane crash off Gibraltar in 1943.

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PHOTOS :

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Soldiers carry coffins of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski (front) and his wife Maria during a short mass inside the Cathedral of St. John in Warsaw, April 18, 2010.

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People greet the convoy carrying the coffins of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria in Krakow on April 18, 2010. A military plane carrying the bodies of Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria left Warsaw for Krakow where their funeral will be held later on April 18.

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Late Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s daughter Marta and her husband Marcin Dubieniecki leave Warsaw airport after the coffins of Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria took off for Krakow on April 18, 2010. A military plane carrying the bodies of Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria left Warsaw for Krakow where their funeral will be held later on April 18.

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Soldiers slowly carry the coffins of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria, draped in red and white flags, into the aircraft at Warsaw’s airport on April 18, 2010. A military plane carrying the bodies of Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria left Warsaw for Krakow where their funeral will be held later on April 18.

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