In Haiti, festive vigils and voodoo undertakers help the bereaved to say their last farewells

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GRAND-BERA, Haiti, September 21 (Reuters) – Anaira Jules, who has lived all her life in a small hamlet in the Haitian countryside, had never set foot on a plane. But on her last trip, she was sent in a glossy white airplane-shaped coffin with a wing tail and illuminated portholes.

Mourners fell into trance or cried during the funeral of the 77-year-old church in Grand-Bera, in Haiti’s central Artibonite department. A brass band then accompanied the great procession which carried the coffin plane to the cemetery.

The day before the funeral, around 200 people played dominoes and cards, drank ginger tea and clairin – the rustic spirit of Haiti similar to rum – and ate local dishes under a tarp outside. the family home while a DJ played evangelical music.

“Since I was little, my mother told me that it was important for her that her funeral went well,” says Jules’s youngest daughter, Fredeline Alfred, 30 years old. “My older sister was in charge and she likes to stand out.”

A festive vigil and lavish funeral with a spectacle of dramatic emotions and brass bands – these are just a few of Haiti’s death rites, which, like its weddings, are often extravagant social events despite the poverty of the country. country.

The rites are considered important to guarantee a safe passage to the afterlife – with cremations and rare organ donations because the deceased are deemed to still need their bodies – but also a way to mark their social status.

The traditions of the Afro-Caribbean voodoo religion are often mixed with Christian ones. Voodoo undertakers – called croque-mort (‘dead-biter’ in French) – prescribe what families should place in coffins in order to ensure safe travel and to ensure that the dead are not turned into zombies.

Alfred said his family didn’t hold a funeral until three weeks after his mother died because they needed time to repaint his house to receive guests and build a new grave.

They hired a bus to transport guests from out of town, set up a tarp in the courtyard, and set up tables and chairs for the vigil, which is usually a party in Haiti where mourners can choose to dance. , sing or tell jokes until Dawn.

For several days after the funeral, people continued to gather there.

Yolvida Desruisseaux, 28, who recently buried her godfather’s father, said this tradition of turning a funeral into a multi-day social event was a balm for the souls of grieving families.

“The family is sad but it’s good to have that kind of atmosphere so that we can smile a little,” she said. “Guests sometimes help us with chores around the house and chat with us to help us get through the worst.”

At the cemetery where her godfather’s father was buried, a mourning person fired bullets into the air – a sign of respect.

FIGHT AGAINST BAD MINDS

Haitians dress the corpses of their loved ones for funerals with an ease that perhaps reflects their familiarity with death.

Disease, malnutrition and natural disasters are rampant in this Caribbean country, while health care is poor, resulting in the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the Western Hemisphere. The average life expectancy is only 64 years.

In families who follow voodoo rites – estimated at more than half of Haiti’s 11 million inhabitants – the undertaker helps prepare the body for burial.

Feguenson Hermogene, a 32-year-old sociologist who recently buried his aunt, said stones were placed in his hands in his coffin to help him fight evil spirits that could harm him.

“You can also include a knife or a machete,” he said, describing the undertaker as “a doctor who gives you a prescription.”

Hermogene said that in rural areas where there were no mortuaries, the undertaker would also know how to embalm the body with leaves. Offerings to voodoo spirits – roasted corn, yams, soda, candy – are usually laid out on a table.

There was a lot of social pressure to deliver an impressive farewell, Hermogene said. And if there was solidarity, with people coming to cook or bringing food, that did not make it possible to offset the costs.

Alfred said the funeral alone cost his family the equivalent of $ 2,122, while the vigil cost an additional $ 3,000 – a fortune in a country where two-thirds of the population earn less than $ 2 per day.

Often times, relatives in the diaspora will help, asking to be zoomed in on the funeral via video call, but other times people will go into debt to pay the costs.

Alfred said she struggled to pay her rent and feed her family after paying so much. But it was all worth it for his mother.

“The last time she spoke to me,” she said, “she held me in her arms and told me that she would never stop loving me.”

Reporting by Valerie Baeriswyl and Andre Paultre Writing by Sarah Marsh Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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