Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic was buried Saturday in Serbia and Montenegro, in a quiet ceremony at his family estate in the town where he was born.

As a cold drizzle fell, his flag-draped coffin was lowered into a double grave with a place left vacant for his widow, Mirjana Markovic, who wants to join him when she dies.

The grave, marked with a simple marble slab, was dug beneath a linden tree where the couple first kissed as high-school sweethearts.

His wife and son did not attend the funeral. They are living in Moscow to avoid arrest in their homeland.

It was a quiet end for a man who led his country into a nationalist war that killed 250,000 people.

Milosevic, who was also the former president of Serbia, died of a heart attack a week ago Saturday in his jail cell in the Netherlands, where he was on trial for 66 war-crimes charges.

A band played sombre marches as an estimated 20,000 supporters followed the funeral cortege through the streets of Pozarevac, about 50 kilometres southeast of Belgrade.

"You lost your life while fighting for noble causes," his wife wrote in a letter that was read at the gravesite. "You were killed by villains. But I know you will live forever for all who wish to live like human beings."

A letter from the couple's son, Marko Milosevic, expressed hope that the late president's death would "sober up the humiliated Serb people. ...To die for one's country means to live forever."

There were no clergy at the ceremony because Milosevic was an avowed atheist.

A long line of nationalist supporters waited patiently to view the grave, which was framed by a crimson carpet and brass stands holding red velvet ropes. Many threw red roses, the symbol of the Serbian Socialist party.

The funeral followed an emotional farewell in Belgrade that drew about 80,000 Serb nationalists who packed a square in front of the federal parliament to pay their respects.

They cried "Slobo, Slobo" as they wept and expressed their anger about his death.

The government did not permit a state funeral so the Socialist party, once led by Milosevic, organized a memorial with elements of a political rally.

"We are bidding farewell to the best one among us, fully conscious of his greatness," said Socialist official Milorad Vucelic. Top Serbian nationalists and retired generals from the former Yugoslav army stood by the podium.

Serbian authorities refused to attend the funeral. But Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general and longtime Milosevic supporter, drew cheers by telling the crowd: "History will prove that Slobodan Milosevic was right."

His supporters see Milosevic as a victim and martyr, CBC reporter Don Murray said.

Milosevic's death was immediately followed by rumours that he was killed.

While preliminary tests have discounted this, mourners were not convinced.

In the crowd Saturday, many people expressed rancour and bitterness at his death, Murray said.

"Tribunal kills," read a sign carried by one person, a reference to the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which was prosecuting Milosevic at the time of his death.