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Helsinki center was quiet on Thursday morning, except for a few groups of tourists that had scattered around the Senate Square, observing the ascending stairs to the Helsinki Cathedral that was blocked by iron fences. In front of the Presidential Palace, a blue ribbon framed the streets from Esplanade to the Hietaniemi Cemetery.
Soldiers, a total of 800, wearing neon vests dotted the gray streets on foot and in big green vans. The city was ready to commemorate the funeral of the former Finnish president, Mauno Koivisto, on this Ascension Day, which is a national holiday that has biblical roots. Koivisto passed away on May 12, aged 93. He was the ninth president of Finland (1982-1994).
The doors opened at the cathedral. President Koivisto rested in a casket wrapped in the government flag. In front of the casket stood a display of his honorary medals: The Order of the Cross of Liberty, the Order of the White Rose of Finland and the Order of the Lion of Finland.
The first invited guests arrived to pay floral tributes to the sound of the church bell. Brigadier General Kim Mattson was the first, representing the Finnish Defence Forces, once led by President Koivisto as the commander-in-chief. Jean Sibelius’s “Mournful Music” was playing in the background – the most classy and sad funeral song, originally composed for the funeral of the great Finnish painter, Akseli Gallen-Kallela in March 1931.
The chair of the Social Democratic Party, Antti Rinne, with his entourage laid a wreath of red and green next to the casket of their former party member with tearful eyes. Many others paid respect in the morning as well before the official funeral ceremony would begin later in the afternoon, such as Ambassador Alexander Rumyantsev of the Russian Federation to Finland and Erkki Liikanen, the governor of Bank of Finland – a successor in the position Koivisto held from 1968 till 1982.
At the funeral service in the cathedral, Bishop Eero Huovinen shared a rare anecdote of Koivisto’s life during the Continuation War. Two Russian prisoners had been captured, and soldier Koivisto was assigned to escort them to the rear. As the prisoners and their escort moved from the front lines toward the rear, they met Finnish soldiers who started “banging the prisoners around.” Koivisto became angry with his countrymen, raised his hand and said: “Don’t touch these men. They are my prisoners; they are my brothers.”
President Niinistö remembered his predecessor addressing the European Parliament in 1993 by saying, “We Finns are a serious people. We are a people of few words. But no one should doubt that we tend to keep our word.”
One of Finland Today’s favorite slogans from President Koivisto was: “One can’t push with a string.”
After the ceremony, the funeral cortege started moving through the city, making stops at the Government Palace, Bank of Finland and the Presidential Palace.
Now about 30,000 people, according to the police, had gathered in the streets under the cloudy sky and behind the blue ribbons to observe the cortege on its way to the Hietaniemi Cemetery, where President Koivisto would be buried next to the graves of the former Finnish presidents, Urho Kekkonen and Risto Ryti. With full military honors.