A president’s funeral

  • 2010-07-07
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

MOURNING WOMEN: Brazauskas’ widow Kristina Brazauskiene (left) and President Dalia Grybauskaite.

VILNIUS - On July 1, Algirdas Brazauskas, the Lithuanian president from 1993-1998, was buried. The gun-carriage carrying his coffin moved at a slow speed from the Presidential Palace to Antakalnis Cemetery. The coffin was followed by Brazauskas’ widow and his twin daughters from his first marriage. Many people went out to the street to watch the procession, which went through central Vilnius. Brazauskas was buried with the sounds of the Lithuanian anthem.
On June 29 and 30, crowds of people went to the Presidential Palace to say their final farewell to their beloved president. They kept bringing flowers, out of which scouts made a flower carpet, with which Brazauskas’ grave was covered, on July 1.

The funeral also provoked a Church-related scandal. Vilnius Archbishop Cardinal Audrys Juozas Backis did not allow Brazauskas’ coffin to be present in the Vilnius Cathedral during the funeral Mass for Brazauskas’ soul on July 1. The decision, which became public a couple of days before the funeral, provoked turmoil because Sigitas Sudentas, Brazauskas’ confessor and parson in the town of Alanta, said that the last will of Brazauskas was to visit in a coffin the Vilnius Cathedral on the way to the burial place. Sudentas was a frequent visitor to the Brazauskas house during the last months of Brazauskas’ life.

The Church’s communication about the decision was poor. At the beginning, Bishop Juozas Tunaitis stated that the Church wanted to avoid technical problems in dealing with big amounts of foreign state leaders. Later, Kaunas Archbishop Sigitas Tamkevicius explained that, when in the 1980s, he was in Siberia for his dissident activity, Brazauskas was a high communist functionary. Another reason mentioned by Tamkevicius was Brazauskas’ second marriage. During the Soviet rule, Brazauskas married his first wife Julija in a secret ceremony in a Catholic church. He did not take the trouble to divorce her via the quite complicated Church-blessed procedures when he married his second wife, Kristina, in 2002. The second marriage was not conducted in the church. It was the second marriage for Kristina Brazauskiene (former Butrimiene) as well. Regardless, Tamkevicius said that taking into account Brazauskas’ Catholic confession on the eve of his death, the president will be buried with all the Church’s ceremonies as “the best Catholic.”

The Church officials emphasized the separation of the Church and state, though such separation is dubious in Lithuania, taking into account the state financial sponsorship for the Church and the Church’s lobbying activity (much bigger than in the majority of other EU states) in favor of ultraconservative decisions in society’s social life. On the day of the funeral, Church-related Church historians Paulius Subacius and Irena Vaisvilaite tried to convince the public that there was nothing extraordinary in Backis’ decision, saying: all Catholics in big cities are buried without their coffin present at the funeral Mass, and all critics of Backis have no clue about Catholic liturgy. One could conclude from the opinions of those two historians that the Polish Catholic Church then also has no clue about the Catholic liturgy because, during the recent funeral of President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, their coffins were brought to a Cathedral for the funeral Mass.

“It is a huge mistake,” Valdas Adamkus stated during a briefing about Backis’ decision. Adamkus said that the Church did deny its own dogma about forgiveness. Adamkus knew about Backis’ intention not to allow Brazauskas’ coffin into the Cathedral some month before Brazauskas’ death. Adamkus even visited Backis before Brazauskas’ death and tried to convince him to change the decision.
“This decision of the hierarchs of the Lithuanian Church will be on their conscience. People will make their judgment on this,” President Dalia Grybauskaite said, not hiding her disgust with such a decision during her briefing on June 28.

The Social Democrats decided that they will go on the early morning of July 1 to the Mass in the Cathedral of the town of Kaisiadorys, where Brazauskas spent his childhood. Grybauskaite stated that she “will not play the political and the Church’s games” and will not go either to the Backis-concelebrated Mass in the Vilnius Cathedral, nor to the Mass in Kaisiadorys. Grybauskaite said that she said her prayer for Brazauskas’ soul on the same evening of June 26 when Brazauskas died and it is enough.

At 7:45 in the morning of July 1, only standing room was left in Kaisiadorys Cathedral. Brazauskas’ daughter Laima Mertiniene, Brazauskas’ brother Gerardas Brazauskas, Brazauskas’ widow Brazauskiene, as well as Ernestas Butrimas, the widow’s son from her first marriage, took part in the Mass there. The Mass in Kaisiadorys was also attended by Social Democrat, Labor Party and Justice and Order MPs. Social Democrat Ceslovas Jursenas, the only openly atheist Lithuanian MP, was present there as well.

“There are no political influences in God’s court. God’s mercy is bigger than justice,” priest Algirdas Jurevicius said during the Mass in Kaisiadorys. He also compared Brazauskas’ diplomatic deals with the communist regime to the deals of Vytautas the Great, head of Lithuania’s medieval empire, with German crusaders who were the main Lithuanian enemies.
During the Mass, Jurevicius also read the last letter by Brazauskas to dwellers of Kaisiadorys. On May 21, Brazauskas, already not capable to write himself, dictated this very short text having a flavor of good humor to his wife. Brazauskas managed to sign this letter. “Dear dwellers of Kaisiadorys,  life is going to the end - it is good that not for all of us and therefore, I wish to those who stay a good, long-term and peaceful life,” reads the last letter by Brazauskas.

The official atmosphere of the Backis-concelebrated Mass in the quite empty Vilnius Cathedral at 10:00 on July 1 was a sharp contrast to the warm and tearful spirit of the Mass in Kaisiadorys. There were some free seats in Vilnius Cathedral. Grybauskaite, foreign ambassadors and foreign visitors did not attend the Mass. The Mass was attended by the Adamkus couple, Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, Parliament Speaker Irena Degutiene, and several right-wing MPs. The Brazauskas family was represented only by some of Brazauskas’ grandchildren.

Backis used the Mass for talking in the usual allegoric ways about his office’s issues. He emphasized the importance of baptism. On June 30, a group of young people presented his office with a written refusal from their Catholic baptism, which they got in childhood, protesting against the Church’s pressure on politicians regarding regulations on sexual life and other social issues. The action got wide-spread applause in internet comments despite the fact that 79 percent of Lithuanians are formal Catholics in official statistics. Backis also said a good word about Brazauskas’ efforts in the restitution of Church property. That could be related to the recent property scandal: protests from Vilnius University professors and students as well as Grybauskaite suspended the plans of the Church and Kubilius’ government to pass the ownership of St. Johns’ Church from Vilnius University to the Church. Vilnius University has owned this church (it functions as a usual Catholic church) since the 16th century. Backis didn’t say much about Brazauskas’ influence on Lithuania’s freedom, probably due to the fact that he does not know much about it himself - Backis spent his childhood in France and later was the Vatican’s diplomat in the Philippines, Costa Rica, Turkey, Nigeria, and Holland.

On July 1, delfi.lt asked its readers “How do you estimate the president’s decision not to participate in the Brazauskas funeral Mass?” and got a massive response of 4,783 readers. The answer from 66 percent of them was “positively,” while 22 percent chose the answer “negatively” and only 12 percent had no opinion on this issue.
According to Brazauskas’ widow, after the Mass, Backis went to the Presidential Palace, where Brazauskas’ coffin was and told his excuses to her for not allowing Brazauskas’ coffin into the Cathedral. However, no public excuse was made. The post-funeral statement by Backis stated that there will be no comments.

On July 1, Catholic intellectual Vytautas V. Landsbergis wrote an opinion piece for alfa.lt, in which he condemned the Church’s decision not allowing Brazauskas’ coffin into the Cathedral and stated that there would have been no success in the fight for independence of Lithuania if not for the actions of his father, leader of the national movement Vytautas Landsbergis, and Brazauskas. The lack of one of them would have been deadly for the independence fight, he stated.
The condolences due to Brazauskas’ death came from Pope Benedict XVI, Queen Elizabeth II of England and many other leaders. “The relationship between the United States and Lithuania expanded and deepened under President Brazauskas’ leadership, founded upon shared interests and shared values,” stated U.S. President Barack Obama in his condolences on June 29.

The funeral was attended by two Nobel Peace Prize winners, former Polish President Lech Walesa and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. Also attending were Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Latvian President Valdis Zatlers, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, former Estonian President Arnold Ruutel and the two closest personal friends of Brazauskas - former Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis and former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.

Brazauskas’ relations with Ulmanis were partially the result of their shared hobby, i.e. hunting. Ulmanis did not hide his emotions when he entered the Presidential Palace’s room where the open coffin with Brazauskas’ body lay. Tears were streaming from Ulmanis’ eyes.
Kwasniewski shared with Brazauskas the same badly smelling biographical fact of being a former member of the communist nomenclature. In the late 1990s to early 2000s, Kwasniewski was lobbying in the West for NATO membership for Lithuania and the rest of the Baltics. He was the only foreign speaker at the ceremony at the grave of Brazauskas. Kwasniewski said that the “great Lithuanian and wonderful European” Brazauskas will be mentioned in the books on Europe’s history.

“I always felt the supporting shoulder of Algirdas Brazauskas and I am very sincere when I call him my teacher and my mentor, who helped me to become a politician,” Grybauskaite said in her speech at Brazauskas’ grave.