In deathly devout Haiti, the spirits go unserved

Saturday, February 6, 2010 – Globe and Mail

PORT-AU-PRINCE — The cemetery reeks of death. Dozens of tombstones are overturned. Crypts have been upended, inverted and emptied of their macabre contents. It would look centuries old were it not for the bright blue paint bouncing sunlight off the broken gravestones.

The overpowering smell comes from the far side of the labyrinthine cemetery, where a plot near the street has been excavated and filled with corpses. More than 2,000 of them.

The plan is to pave over the spot and turn it into a memorial to those killed in the earthquake. But for now it’s simply a mass grave, holding corpses covered with pale dirt and concrete dust.

“Next Ghede will be wild,” says voodoo priest Menahem Laurent, referring to a holiday in early November similar to the Latin American Day of the Dead. “There will be so many ghosts.”

In a country shaped by generations of missionaries and evangelists, and where belief in the power of spirits is almost universal, the afterlife is taken seriously in Haiti.

Here religion is everywhere: in convenience stores and lottery booths with names like “Dieu Seule;” in images of Jesus spray-painted on concrete walls and crazily coloured “tap-tap” trucks; in the churches and evangelical schools found on every block even in the most destitute corners of the country.

There are rules about how to bury the dead, how to dress the corpse and when to pray.

Today, death is everywhere in Port-au-Prince. For a people who see each funeral as important and every coffin as unique, the magnitude of an estimated 150,000 deaths is a difficult thing to come to terms with. Not being able to retrieve the bodies of one’s loved ones from the ruins is excruciating; finding the dead and being unable to bury them is little better.

Jean Louis specializes in one-stop funerals – the coffin and the car to carry it in, the grave or a crypt to place it in, and all the trappings of an elaborate service.

It’s vital for everything to be done just so, down to the outfit for the deceased. No jeans. No shoes. Haircut a must. Veils for women.

But his packages set people back up to 50,000 Haitian dollars – more than $7,000. Almost no one can afford that now, he says. As the death toll rises, he’s never had fewer customers.

That simple fact is a sign of how hard people have been hit. In Haiti, rites such as baptism, communion and a funeral are mandatory markers on life’s way. “This is a country of rites of passage,” says Danielle Jeudi, a baptized Catholic and voodoo trainee. “On a moral level, not to be able to do this, it’s extremely difficult.”

According to voodoo tradition, the spirit moves on to another life after death. But the ceremonies and prayer are as much for the bereaved as for the dead. “There is so much pain,” Ms. Jeudi says. “Personally, I haven’t seen anyone cry. But everyone is mourning their dead. It’s obligatory.”

Marie-Ange Bissainthe has been living with her daughters and two other families in a tent at the Pétionville Golf Club since the earthquake struck. It’s not bad, she says – and far better than just about any other of the spontaneous settlements that have sprung up – except for the spirits tormenting her children at night.

Everyone knows someone with a story. With his friends’ help, Mr. Louis’s neighbour, Sergo, managed to unearth his wife and two young children from the rubble of their home. Two more children, however, remain buried. Many of those who do recover the bodies of their loved ones find themselves unable to do anything with them. They can’t afford to bury them, and morgues don’t have the space to hold them.

For the fortunate, there are funerals – of a sort. Yvane Mesier is doing a booming business selling rum in Port-au-Prince’s cemetery. Every afternoon there are funerals here, she says – so many that crypts are often opened up and the coffins removed so new ones can be put in.

Others make do as best they can. The Université de l’État d’Haiti held its own memorial service last month, even though hundreds of students and staff remain unaccounted for. People read out the names of their missing and dead on the radio. Many families hold their own candle-lit pseudo-ceremonies.

A communal service is planned for Feb. 12 – a month to the day after the earthquake – to commemorate the dead whose bodies have not been found, cemetery employee Jonas Joseph said.

But it’s not the same.

“Can you imagine what that’s like?” Johane Jean asks. “To have your family gone, killed, but not to know for sure? Not to even have their bodies?”

Ms. Jean’s cousin, 26-year-old Youseline Toussaint, was killed when her university classroom collapsed around her. Her lifelong friend, Tamara Clerge, was crushed in the rubble of Ms. Jean’s grandmother’s house.

“No one’s even been up there to take them out,” Ms. Jean says. She and her family are living on the street near Place Jérémie, their own home having been destroyed.

A funeral would be nice, she says. “But have you seen the cemetery? People take bodies and throw them in a hole. It’s catastrophic.”

It would never be accepted normally, she says. “But there are so many people.”

She pauses, then looks at the collapsed buildings around her. “We’re all living beside mass graves,” she observes.

The Rev. Ducarmel Edouard, who has a parish in Port-au-Prince, says the earthquake has shaken people’s faith, but not destroyed it.

He points to the cathedral, where bodies are still buried and where he and dozens of others have come to clear away the ruins of Haiti’s most prominent religious building.

They come here every Sunday morning in their hundreds to pray in the shadow of the ruined cathedral – the rising sun shining through shattered stained glass, hymns sung against the clatter of helicopters flying overhead.

“People still have their faith, but it’s fragile,” Father Ducarmel said. “In just a few seconds, so many people are dead. Can you imagine? How are people expected to respond to that?”


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