Quake Takes Its Toll On Haiti's Burial Rites With an estimated death toll as high as 200,000 in Haiti from the Jan. 12 quake, mass burials have replaced the traditional rituals for honoring the dead. In a land where funeral rites and the spiritual afterlife are central tenets, many Haitians are upset that so many bodies have been buried without ceremony.
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Quake Takes Its Toll On Haiti's Burial Rites

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Quake Takes Its Toll On Haiti's Burial Rites

Quake Takes Its Toll On Haiti's Burial Rites

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

As many as 200,000 people are estimated to have died in the Haiti earthquake. That is nearly seven percent of the population of Port-au-Prince. With most of the bodies hauled to mass graves who are still entombed in fallen buildings, normal funeral rights are impossible. That's in a country that observes death with elaborate ceremony.

NPR's John Burnett reports on how Haitians are coping.

JOHN BURNETT: All over Port-au-Prince, the places that normally play an integral role in burial customs are eerily empty. Marc Arthur Alcero, who runs two large mortuaries in the Haitian capital is asked how many funerals he's had in the 16 days after the quake.

Mr. MARC ARTHUR ALCERO (Mortician): Very few of them, about eight or nine. That is very, very hard situation for a Haitian, for somebody to know that his wife or his children is dead and he cannot find the body.

BURNETT: In one of the vast tent camps that fill every park, school ground and open space, a man mashes boiled breadfruit into tom-tom, a stew made with okra that came from Africa during slavery times. Rosete Dabedy sits quietly nearby, outside her tent made of bedsheets. She says her 22-year-old niece, Darleen, a college student, was crushed inside of her house. The body never recovered.

Ms. ROSETE DABEDY: (Through Translator) The only thing we have left is our memory. I know where she was when she died, but I know they'll take her body and put it in a mass grave. And I can't even go there to honor her, so it's difficult for us.

BURNETT: In any culture, it's painful to grieve for a lost loved one where there's no place to remember them. But in this Caribbean nation so densely populated with spirits and the ceremonies that attend them, it's especially disruptive. In Haiti, the slaves that defeated the French and declared their independence in 1804, kept their African religion. Today, a majority of Haitians observe Voodoo, a cosmic scheme whose fundamental principle is that everything from humans to crocodiles to mango trees has a spirit.

Max Beauvoir is the ati, the big tree of the Haitian Voodoo religion. Wearing a tropical shirt, he sits in his garden at his house in Carrefour, which is outside the capital and escaped heavy damage. He's happy to explain what happens during a Voodoo wake for the dead.

Mr. MAX BEAUVOIR (Ati, Haitian Voodoo): You know, for nine days, we grieve the person, meaning we invite the community to come around to celebrate the departure of the person. So, in fact, people are gathered together, night and days, and they eat and drink together, they chant, they pray. And enemies are also invited as well. And all that bridges the wound that existed between families. And that's after those nine days that we do the funeral.

BURNETT: The soul stays underwater for a year and a day, he says, after which another ceremony is held to pull the dead from the water. Then the reborn spirit goes to live in a big tree, a grotto or some other place to await its reincarnation.

Mimerose Beaubrun, the musical partner of the Haitian roots musician Lolo Beaubrun, is a Voodoo practitioner and researcher. She worries that with the sudden and violent deaths of so many, the living are unable to hold the normal ceremonies to help the spirits of the dead move on.

Ms. MIMEROSE BEAUBRUN (Voodoo Practitioner and Researcher): (Through Translator) They have to make, like, a ceremony to help them, like, the name is in Creole, dessonet, to let them go through it and accept that the spirit must get out of the body. So it's sad because right now all those people that died, their spirits still there in their bodies.

BURNETT: This is by no means Haiti's first mass calamity. Haitians have suffered repeated catastrophes from hurricanes to earthquakes to massacres. Here, death is close at hand.

Reverend STEPHEN DAVENPORT (Retired Episcopal Priest): Baptisms, I've done in the mountains for years. You look at that child's face, his eyes. Fifty percent are dead by the age of five years old.

BURNETT: Reverend Stephen Davenport is a retired Episcopal priest from Maryland. Rumpled, with frizzy white hair, he's been coming to Haiti for 40 years.

Rev. DAVENPORT: There isn't anybody here who doesn't have a friend, member of the family or whatever, they know somebody who died in this. And that's just part of what they're going through. But, you know, never fear, they will not lose hope. They don't ever give up. It's incredible. Why, I don't know completely. I just learn from them and they don't, I don't.

BURNETT: Davenport is in Port-au-Prince helping his Haitian friends at St. Pierre Episcopal High School - the headmaster is Father Rival Lucas.

Father RIVAL LUCAS (Headmaster, St. Pierre Episcopal High School: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: In our culture, people honor the dead. When they die, they have a nice ceremony, a lot of services for them. To take all those bodies and put them in mass graves is not good. It's sad, shocking and degrading. It disrespects the sacredness of a person.

Haiti's mass grave is located at edge of the broken city overlooking the shimmering bay of Port-au-Prince. At the foot of a treeless hillside, where goats scavenge, a yellow excavator idles next to the fresh landfill within which rest countless, nameless bodies. Inside the earthmoving equipment sits a stout woman named Ester. She doesn't want to give her last name. As an employee of Haiti's National Equipment Center, she's been out here every day since the earthquake digging the holes.

Ester, how many bodies do they think are buried out here?

ESTER (National Equipment Center): (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Ester says she doesn't know. She says the body trucks used to come all day long, now only two or three a day come and they're not full. They haul rubble that contains maybe four or five corpses. She sits here all day until quitting time at six o'clock, waiting for the body trucks.

ESTER: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Sometimes people come to pray and there are always a lot of journalists, she says with a slight sneer. She's asked what it's like for her doing this job.

ESTER: (Through Translator) I'm a human and it affects me a lot, as everybody else. I- people that I know - also that I lost. But somebody has to do the job, like, we don't want the bodies to sit outside.

BURNETT: But there are many people that complain that mass graves are disrespectful of the dead and there's got to be a better way to do this.

ESTER: (Through Translator) Yes, we know that it's so disrespectful since our tradition is not like that. But we have to take the bodies because we can't leave them on the street.

BURNETT: The interview was cut short. A dump truck has just pulled off the highway and kicks up a cloud of white dust as it makes its way toward the gravesite.

John Burnett, NPR News, Port-au-Prince.

SIEGEL: Our coverage of the situation in Haiti continues at npr.org where you can find photos and more news on relief efforts.

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