ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Cannon shots boomed, motorists honked their horns and church bells tolled as the remains of the Danish-born empress who was the mother of Russia's last czar were interred in the Romanovs' royal crypt 78 years after her death.
The empress regarded the last decade of her life as exile, and wished to be buried in Russia.
Russian and Danish guards placed the wooden casket, covered with a bright yellow flag, near her husband, Czar Alexander III, in the royal crypt at the cathedral of the Peter and Paul Fortress on an island in the Neva River, as an orchestra played solemn music. A marble sarcophagus baring Maria Feodorovna's name was then placed in the cathedral.
"I am very glad that Empress Maria Feodorovna will now again be with her husband and her children ... it's great that they fulfilled the wish of Maria Feodorovna to be buried next to her family," said Alevtina Batalova, a 64-year-old former teacher who came to catch a glimpse of the procession.
Several hundred officials, guests and foreign dignitaries, including members of the British and Danish royal families, attended the ceremony, many holding candles and white roses and most of them wearing black. Many of the women wore broad-brimmed black mourning hats.
Tatiana Erdman, a great-great-granddaughter of Maria Feodorovna who lives in Colorado, said she was deeply moved by the occasion.
"It's very significant that Maria Feodorovna has finally returned home," Erdman told The Associated Press. "This event is also very meaningful because it gathers the big family of the Romanovs."
The pomp-filled events began with Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II leading prayers in St. Isaac's Cathedral, the principal church of the Romanov dynasty. He praised Maria Feodorovna as a true daughter of Russia.
"Having fallen deeply in love with the Russian people, the empress devoted a great deal of effort for the benefit of the Russian fatherland," Alexy said. "Her soul ached for Russia."
As the procession moved around the city, people crossed themselves, military officers saluted the cortege, and car drivers blew horns.
Many Russians felt the return of the czarina's remains was a meaningful step in restoring their appreciation of their country's complicated and tormented history.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Romanov family have been working for the remains of Maria Feodorovna to be sent to Russia.
"Today we have fulfilled the innermost will of the empress," said Culture Minister Alexander Sokolov. "It means the time has come to fill the gaps in our history and culture."
Maria Feodorovna initially was betrothed to Czar Alexander II's son, Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovich, but he died when the princess was 17. In his will, he asked that she marry his brother, which she did the following year, in 1866.
Her husband became czar in 1881 after the moderately reform-minded Alexander II was assassinated; Alexander III died in 1894.