The controversies over the Pantheon (of Great Poles)

By Dorota Szeligowska | 16 September 2013

To quote this document: Dorota Szeligowska, “The controversies over the Pantheon (of Great Poles)”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 16 September 2013,, displayed on 06 June 2023

Today, Sławomir Mrożek will be buried in Kraków. While he died a month ago, the burial was delayed in waiting for the new section of the (Kraków‘s) Pantheon, in the crypts of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, to be ready. This article will present a short outlook on the recent developments in the domain of Polish Pantheon(s), putting them in their historical, sometimes relatively controversial, perspective.

Mrożek's death – illustration of the uncertainty about the procedures

A caravan drawn by black horses, going along the King’s way, paying a visit to the St. Mary’s Basilica, a sandstone catafalque in the crypt of St. Peter and Paul Church’s in Kraków, the mass celebrated by Kraków’s archbishop, Stanisław Dziwisz. These are the details of the imminent burial of Sławomir Mrożek, one of the finest Polish writers and playwrights of XXth century, as announced in the beginning of September.

Mrożek died on 15 August 2013, in Nice, France, where he lived for the past few years. His burial was scheduled in Kraków, according to his wish, on… 17 September. The very location of the burial was not announced until 10 days after his death. Such a long time span was needed for a proper logistical organisation of the burial, but also for a hasty finish of the construction of the new Pantheon, in the crypt of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul.

One could say that it is 'burial worth of Mrożek’ (pogrzeb jak z Mrożka), prompting the opening of a new Pantheon, in the midst of fuzziness over the decision-making procedure about the organisation of such burials. The reality matched to a certain extent his absurdist fiction. 

Wawel – the symbolical burial place and ‘the Wawel conflict’

In Poland, the Royal Castle in Kraków, Wawel, its Cathedral and its crypts are potentially the closest to the idea of a national Pantheon. Polish kings (Stefan Batory, Zygmunt III Waza, Jan III Sobieski), national heroes (general Tadeusz Kościuszko, Marshall Józef Piłsudski and general Władysław Sikorski) and two most prominent XIX century Romantic poets (Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki) are buried there. In spite of being highly symbolical, it is only one among several places where important people are buried. The others are:

  • Krypta Zasłużonych na Skałce (the Crypt of the Meritorious in the Church on the Rock) in Kraków, which since the end of 19th century was a natural extension of Wawel as a burial place of important personalities. It gathers tombs of Jan Długosz (buried there in 1880 – 400th anniversary of his death), Stanisław Wyspiański and Czesław Miłosz, among others.
  • the Arch-cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Warsaw, which was the crowning place of Polish kings in the 18th century. In its crypts there are tombs of: the last Polish king, Stanisław August Poniatowski; the interwar Polish presidents: Gabriel Narutowicz and Ignacy Mościcki; a Prime Minister from the same period, Ignacy Paderewski; or the Primate of the Catholic Church under the communist regime 1948-1981: Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński.
  • the Cemeteries: Powązki in Warsaw, and Rakowicki in Kraków. Participants of national uprisings, soldiers and people of culture rest on both of the aforementioned cemeteries.
  • Finally, the Pantheon of Great Poles in Świątynia Opatrzności Bożej (Temple of Divine Providence) located in Warsaw, which is sometimes called ‘Wawel of the third Millenium’, by its creators.

Of course, by past, many burial decisions were controversial. To give a few examples: in 1916, the archbishop of Kraków Adam Sapieha refused to bury Henryk Sienkiewicz, the winner of a Nobel Prize in literature, at Wawel (he finally was buried in the Arch-cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Warsaw). The burial of the remnants of Juliusz Słowacki did not make consensus either; he could only be buried at Wawel in 1927, thanks to the support of Piłsudski, his great admirer. Putting him in the same crypt with Mickiewicz can be qualified as a ‘chuckle’ of history though, given the poor relationship between the two poets in their lifetime. One of the conditions under which Abp. Sapieha agreed to bury Słowacki at Wawel was the promise that it would be the last Wawel burial. History will prove him wrong: ‘Never say never’.

Probably one of the most know controversies, over the burial of a public figure at Wawel (before Lech Kaczyński) concerned Józef Piłsudski himself. This conflict had two parts, and even an international dimension. After Piłsudski’s death on 12 May 1935, the government elites (President Ignacy Mościcki and Prime Minister Walery Sławek) requested for him to be buried in Wawel’s crypts, seemingly in line with his own wish. Sapieha again agreed to the burial (despite his earlier pledge of the ‘last Wawel burial’ of Słowacki, and despite Piłsudski’s leftist past and his problematic relationship with religion) out of respect for his role in recreating a sovereign country, but mostly under the pressure of the popular cult of Piłsudski. However, the real ‘Wawel conflict' happened two years later when Sapieha finally decided to transfer Piłsudski’s coffin to the individual Crypt under the Tower of Silver Bells, from the St. Leonard’s Crypt (seemingly ‘more prestigious’, sheltering tombs of Sobieski and Kościuszko, among others). While the government officials participated in the conception work over the preparation of the other crypt, they protested against the unilateral, at that time, decision of Sapieha of proceeding to the transfer of the coffin during the night of 22/23 June 1937. This transfer provoked a month-long crisis, which started on 23 June with Prime Minister Felicjan Sławoj-Składkowski’s attempted demission of his cabinet, which was not accepted by the President. The anti-Sapieha campaign lasted for a couple of weeks, but did not manage to force the reversal of his decision, despite dragging the papal nonce in the controversy, and appealing to the Pope himself to force changing Sapieha’s decision.

The ‘free’ space in St. Leonard crypt ceased to be vacant only in 1993, after the burial of General Władysław Sikorski (leader of Polish government in exile during World War II, who died in a plane crash by Gibraltar in 1943, and whom was in conflicted relations with Piłsudski, by the way), when the British government agreed to exhume and transfer his body. At that time, again, then Kraków's archbishop, Franciszek Macharski, proclaimed that it was the last burial at Wawel.

Not only burials at Wawel sparked controversies. In 2004, another Nobel prize winner in literature, Czesław Miłosz, was accused of being ‘un-Polish’ by the 'true Poles' of the radical right, who objected to his burial in the aforementioned Kraków's Church on the Rock. A biased reading of his biography (notably of the initial communist commitment until 1951) and works (supposedly too critical of Poland and Polishness) served the radicals to accuse him of lack patriotism. It took, among others, an intervention of the late Pope John Paul II, in Miłosz’s defence, to settle the controversy and bury him according to the plan. This controversy showed how one’s deeds can be instrumentalised to discredit or support their ‘patriotic’ commitment and worthiness of a state burial.

The ‘Wawel war’

However, the most spectacular object of controversial ‘burial politics’ was the recent case of the late President Lech Kaczyński, in 2010. On 10 April 2010, he died, in a plane crash near Smolensk, along 95 other persons, flying to Katyn to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre of Polish officers by NKVD. Immediately after the crash, during the national mourning, the decision of where to bury him became controversial, and split the political and public spheres almost in half.

According to the recollection of Michał Boni, the governmental representative in charge of commemorations, the first signal from the Head of Chancellery of the deceased president was that the family wanted the Presidential couple to be buried at Powązki. Warsaw’s bishop Kazimierz Nycz then proposed the crypt of the Arch-Cathedral, but on 13 April 2010, Kraków’s Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz announced, after meeting Jarosław Kaczyński, the decision about the burial of the Presidential couple (which was by itself unprecedented, by prompted by their simultanous death in the crash) at Wawel.

Dziwisz motivated this decision by the fact that the death of the President was heroic (and not tragic, as it really was), and wished for this decision to unite the society. However, it resulted almost immediately in popular protests. Two hours after the announcement of the decision there were around 500 persons calmly protesting in Kraków, in front of the Cardinal’s residence, carrying signs reading, e.g. “Przesada (Exaggeration)” and shouting “Powązki”, “Powązki, nie Wawel (Powązki, not Wawel)”, “Hipokryzja (Hypocrisy)”, “Kardynale zmień decyzję (Cardinal, change the decision)”. The protests were also organized on the following day, with particularly strong presence of the social media.

Given that the protests were really important, even Cardinal Dziwisz, without retracting from the initial decision, cared to precise that it was not his decision, but he only enacted the will of the family of the deceased President, without specifying who asked for it (whether it was the daughter of the presidential couple, Marta, or Lech’s twin brother, Jarosław; the mother of the twins was not immediately informed about the crash, because she was in a difficult health condition). He also reiterated his opinion that burying the presidential couple at Wawel was not an exaggeration, because the President “died as a hero, and deserve(d) to be buried among heroes”. Nonetheless, in the end, nobody wanted to claim the responsibility for this decision. The Curia was pointing at the family and PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, Law and Justice, the party of the late President and his brother), as initiators of this idea, and the members of PiS were pointing at Cardinal Dziwisz. 

Finally, Kaczyński was buried in the antechamber of the Crypt under the Tower of Silver Bells, where Piłsudski rests. While in Piłsudski’s case putting him in this specific crypt sparked the wide political crisis, in Kaczyński’s case, the choice of the crypt did not matter, the very symbolic of Wawel sufficed. The 'Wawel mistake', as its critics use to call it, contributed to the creation of a heroic (sic!) myth of President Kaczyński, and became a tool in the electoral and political strategy of his brother and party.

Furthermore, the fact that the Church unilaterally took the decision of where to bury the deceased state official can only be seen as problematic in a secular state, where the Constitution (of 1997, Art.25) grants the separation of the state and of the Church. While there were no clear administrative procedures concerning the place of burial of the state’s highest representatives, it was not a breach of procedures. Yet, during the mourning and the controversy over the burial place, the representatives of the state administration did not even voice their clear opinion on the topic. Apparently, cardinal Dziwisz consulted Minister Boni, about the government’s position on the presidential burial at Wawel, but the government decided simply to respect the will of family concerning the burial place, for all victims. One could say then that while cardinal Dziwisz was, in a way, expecting the government to take the decision, the government abdicated from this responsibility. It left the place to the Church, to play the role of Interrex in the period of the national mourning. While the short laps of time between the plane crash and the burial did not allow for a profound reflection and debate on this topic, it revealed that there were no contingency plans prepared for such situation, or if there were any, the pathos of the situation pushed them aside.

An impulse to create a new Pantheon?

Other valid considerations emerged on the occasion of the burial of the presidential couple in 2010: a wished for model of national Pantheon (centralised or not) and its nature (religious or secular).

In line with the question of lack of space in the Wawel crypts, Daniel Passent adopted a more centralised approach, criticising the fact that there were no proper plans or even discussions about creating a proper Pantheon of all leaders of free Poland. With Lech Kaczyński buried at Wawel, it will be virtually impossible to have all presidents of the IIIrd Republic (created in 1989) buried in the same place. It needs to be recognised that such centralised approach, where general Wojciech Jaruzelski, Lech Wałęsa, Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Lech Kaczyński (to name all former presidents of the III RP to date) would be buried at the same place might yet be too difficult to imagine from the view point of conciliation of divided memories.

Also, it must be said though that the idea of creating a new Pantheon was not absent in 2010, but it remains unresolved. There are concurrent projects of it. While in Warsaw there is the aforementioned Pantheon of Great Poles in the Temple of Divine Providence, a distinct Foundation of National Pantheon was created in Kraków, gathering the representatives of the Polish Academy of Competences, 11 universities and the Kraków’s Curia. The latter decided to start the works of creating another Pantheon in Kraków, in the crypts of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. The first part of it was opened on 27 September 2012, in the 400th anniversary of death of Piotr Skarga, himself buried in one of the church’s crypts. However, the works will last until 2016. This is why Mrożek’s burial needed to be delayed a bit, in order to prepare a section of a Pantheon where he could be buried.

This Kraków’s Pantheon is supposed, in a decentralised vein, to be a complement of the Warsaw's Pantheon of Great Poles, and they are supposed not to ‘compete for bodies’, because of a foreseen split of categories: Warsaw’s Pantheon will gather the tombs of politicians and people of the public sphere, and the Kraków’s one, of people of culture, art and science. The decision about whom to bury in these Pantheons will be taken by special Chapters. The one created in Kraków in 2012 includes: the archbishop of the region, the president of the city, the Minister of Culture and National Heritage, the Chair of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Chair of the Polish Academy of Competences, the Rector of the Jagellonian University and the chair of the Foundation of the National Pantheon. The membership of the Warsaw’s Chapter is not yet known, however one can expect that it will be similar to the Kraków’s one. One can also expect that such decisions will be now bound by a set of procedures, and a similar situation to the one of the Wawel’s burial of president Kaczyński will not repeat itself.

Furthermore, in terms of nature of these diverse Pantheons, there is no substantial difference. Most of the aforementioned places have a clear religious connotation. Both new Pantheons remain incorporated in the religious sphere (they are located in Church's crypts, and Curia representatives participate in the decision of whom to bury), which could potentially be a problem for non-religious public figures to be buried there. Even though specific Chapters are foreseen, the decision-making procedure of selecting (and its timing) of people to be buried there is still not clear.

Finally, the question of space is not fully addressed. In Mrożek's case, he was already cremated in France, but will rest in a full sized catafalque, which, according to the words of the Chair of the Foundation of the National Pantheon, Franciszek Ziejka, is a sign of recognition of achievements. But if the crypt in Kraków continues to be filled with such catafalques, it could only gather 30 of them. Such limitation does not seem to worry Ziejka, who refers to the Church on the Rock, where only 14 people were buried in the last 120 years. Yet, if it has ambitions to be a fully-fledged Pantheon for peoples of art and culture, more reflection should potentially be put in answering this and the aforementioned questions, as well.


Pour aller plus loin:

  • Agata Agaciak, "Kontrowersyjne pochówki w katedrze wawelskiej (Controversial burials in Wawel's Cathedral)", Polska The Times, 14 April 2010, available online,
  • Daniel Passent, “Narodziny legendy (The birth of a legend)”, on his blog “En passant” on the website of Polityka, 13 April 2010. Available at (consulted on 8 September 2010).
  • Bartosz Piłat, "Pogrzeb Sławomira Mrożka. Drogą Królewską do Panteonu (The burial of Sławomir Mrożek. Through the King's Way to the Pantheon)", Gazeta Wyborcza, 3 September 2013.
  • Barbara Suchy, “Kraków ma swój Panteon, uzupełnienie dla warszawskiej Świątyni Opatrzności Bożej (Kraków has its Pantheon, the complement to Warsaw’s Temple of God’s Providence)”, Gazeta Wyborcza, 28 September 2012.
  • Dorota Szeligowska, "Patriotism in the mourning", unpublished manuscript (available upon demand).
  • Adam Szostkiewicz, "Groby w głowach (Tombs in the heads)", Polityka, 28 August 2013.
  • Luiza Trybuś, "Konflikt wawelski, czyli spór o szklaną trumnę (The Wawel conflict, quarrel about the glass coffin)", available online
  • Jacek Żakowski, “Tamta mgła wraca (That fog keeps coming back)”, Interview with Michał Boni, Polityka, 10 April 2011.