Lack of proper funerals disturbing to Haitians


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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Haitian funerals are elaborate affairs with music, a parade, sometimes a public feast. Photographers are hired to record the event as if it were a wedding.

Departing planet Haiti is the sort of thing one does once and, even in this poorest of nations, nobody wants to give the impression of being an impoverished corpse.

"A person will die from lack of care and then have a lavish funeral," said Evelien de Gier. She is Dutch by birth and Haitian by choice and, just now, looking for a place to sell her wares.

Ms. de Gier has a factory in Port-au-Prince that makes caskets and cabinetry. The logic is obvious: "You put a casket upright you have a cabinet, right?"

She returned to Port-au-Prince Monday after a business conference. For now, she is hoping to market temporary, wooden homes for people sleeping in tents.

The logic of her current business problem is less obvious. Haiti has a surfeit of death, a line of corpses more than 100,000 long, yet Ms. de Gier is without her market.

"Our two biggest customers are gone," she said.

One was Albert Chancy. His funeral home is in the street.

The other was the upscale, five-story funeral parlor known as Pax Villa. Its staff are all dead. What funerals they were able to obtain for them Ms. de Gier does not know.

For the past month, Haitians have been digging bodies from beneath concrete walls and roofs, piling them into trucks, and burying them in pits on the outskirts of town.

This unceremonious burial rankles the Haitians, for whom life is already hard and for whom death should at least have some ceremony.

"This is my brother," said Jean Patrice Dorvil, who teaches history. On his laptop computer screen was a photo of a dust-covered body, slightly bloated, arms stretched above the head, lying face up. He could not get photos of the other dead brother, who has not been retrieved.

The funeral, he said, did not exist.

"Nothing. Just put him in the hole and that's it," Mr. Dorvil said. "This is the first time that Haitians do not do like they used to. They just put all the people who are dead in one hole."

The pits on the edge of town are shallow. Bones protrude. The stench rivals description. In the port neighborhood of Carrefour some bodies lie near what resembled a dump and one was burning.

If Mr. Dorvil's brother, Jacques, had received a proper Haitian funeral, there would have been the requisite march to the church, a Mass or other ceremony, a trip to a proper cemetery, followed by coffee and food to the attendees.

In many cases a Veye -- a French Creole tradition -- might have been held. Friends and relatives gather, keen, talk about the departed and, sometimes, the men play dominoes.

Then there is the casket.

Caskets here run from $300 to $600. That is what the cabinetmaker charges the funeral home. The funeral home, in turn, throws the casket into an overall funeral package which can run three to four times that much. In a place where the per capita income falls below $1,000, the investment is jarring to an outsider.

William Larimore Mellon, the Pittsburgh doctor and philanthropist who founded the Hopital Albert Schweitzer in the mountains north of Port-au-Prince, was stunned by this practice. As an example, he insisted that a local funeral home make him a cheap, cardboard casket which was taken through the streets of Deschapelles with little show of wealth.

The hope, said his stepson, Ian Rawson, was that the locals would reorder their priorities, and use money for life rather than death. For years, Dr. Mellon would stop by the storage shed where his casket awaited, just to make sure things were in order. They were not. Rodents of some manner had eaten the thing.

Mr. Rawson quietly arranged a replacement. How much they ended up spending one cannot say.

Mr. Mellon and his wife, Gwen, both lie in a quiet plot that was once dust and is, today, a lavish garden built by the hospital staff and visited regularly by their son and grandchildren.

Haitian graves often look like small houses, but until recent years, people were mostly buried beneath the structure, said Mr. Rawson.

Wealth, or the impression of it, is often equated with Americans. Ms. de Gier said many Haitians ask for wooden caskets dressed up to look like the metal ones in which Americans are buried.

They throw together the wood or particle board, then apply a glossy, metallic paint.

High-end wooden caskets are polished, have brass fixtures and often are decorated inside with religious themes such as the Last Supper or an angel.

So much death with so little ceremony remains a cloud even as people begin to filter back to the capital. President Rene Preval, said Mr. Dorvil, suggested a mass remembrance.

"The president said that we should have a funeral for all people that are dead," Mr. Dorvil said. "So maybe my brother gets some benediction."


Dennis B. Roddy: droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965. First Published February 10, 2010 5:00 AM


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