ISSUES AND IDEAS

In Haiti, funerals become eulogies for a nation

 

jcharles@MiamiHerald.com

LEOGANE, Haiti -- Two separate funeral bands file past one another in concurrent ceremonies for the different set of mourners, whose wails pierce through white tents crammed with family and friends for the final viewing of the departed lying in open caskets.

The scene depicts yet another day of tragedy in this quake-ravaged town, just south of the capital, where no building seems to have been spared in the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck on Jan. 12.

The tents where the wake and funeral Mass were held were at the site of the St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church. The building is now a collapsed sanctuary of memories.

"Everything's not right. Everything is not right," said Beliotte Sterle, 52, who was paying respects to his deceased aunt. He has been to at least six funerals since Jan. 12.

"There are so many, that sometimes I just don't go," he said. "People just can't take it."

Sterle's aunt, Conserve Jéoboham 82, died Feb. 17 of a heart attack, following one of many continuing aftershocks. Lying in the second tent was Mardi Révélia, 84.

Cause of her death: unclear.

The funerals of these strangers were the third I witnessed as a reporter on this particular day. A fourth funeral -- on the previ- ous day -- was for one of my own family members.

My cousin, Hérard Aneas, died Feb. 25. He, too, collapsed within four hours of an after-shock, said his only daughter Heraldine, a nurse.

Heraldine said Hérard's heart finally gave out as she unsuccessfully attempted to give him CPR in the back seat of the car as she and her brothers raced with him to a hospital after midnight.

Two months after Haiti's greatest disaster, funerals have become the new norm in a post-quake Haiti, where only weeks ago the dead were piled up on the side of roads and then tossed into mass graves.

Multiple funerals, two and three at a time, are taking place here daily. They are happening within what's left of centuries-old churches, in courtyards strewn with piles of rubble, and underneath tarps pitched like cathedrals around wooden frames.

"Before the quake, death was a family event." said Dr. Alix Lassegue, who runs the general hospital in Port-au-Prince, which houses the capital's only public morgue. "Now, everybody knows."

Statistically the number of deaths is not any higher today than it was before the quake, Lassegue said. But the perception of increased deaths is real and Jan. 12 has become the explanation for everything. Because death is so prevalent here, no one ever dies of natural causes in the minds of Haitians.

In order to cope with so many deaths, people need to assign blame.

DEVASTATING NEWS

That was true for my family as well.

I first learned of Hérard's death in an e-mail that jolted me out of bed in disbelief.

Until that moment, I had been a member of an elite club -- those with family in the capital who managed to escape death in the Jan. 12 quake.

Then came the phone call confirming my new status as a member of a majority: people here who have lost at least one person they love.

Hérard was my mother's oldest nephew, the one who stands out in my childhood memories of life in Haiti, and the one who just two months ago allowed me to finally breathe a sigh of relief when I asked, "Eske tout moun vivan?"

"Yes, we are all alive," he said over the telephone from Carrefour, near the quake's epicenter.

In a country where most people live on less than $2 a day, my cousin had done well as a taxi driver. He had successfully raised six children, five of whom are professionals with decent jobs but lousy salaries. The sixth is disabled.

But his accomplishments are not what the priest presiding over the memorial service touched on in one of the few Catholic churches still standing in Carrefour. Instead, Hérard's funeral -- and that of the stranger being memorialized alongside him -- became a eulogy for the nation, a place where suffering and misery reign, and where people have fallen deeper into despair in the perceived absence of leadership, the priest hinted.

As a journalist, I had spent weeks on the ground reporting about the aftermath of the quake, living with the anxiety of the ongoing aftershocks while personally in awe of the Haitian resilience. I had seen more corpses than I ever care to and listened to children and siblings of the dead talk about their heartbreaking search for closure in wakes with no bodies to bury, no funerals to attend. I thought I understood their pain.

But I really didn't -- until I heard my own mother's wail.

"You cannot bury him like that, like someone who doesn't have family," my mother cried in Creole after my cousin Jean Romel "RoRo'' Aneas initially explained that his father's funeral would be held in haste the next day. She demanded to be able to fly in from Miami and take part in a "proper'' burial.

Hérard was her favorite nephew, and quake or no quake, she didn't want him to be discarded as just another nameless, faceless victim. In the end, she prevailed.

But tens of thousands of other families can't say the same. Even as three new mass grave sites are dug in Titanyen -- a sprawling area outside the capital named the "little nothing'' -- for those still buried underneath the rubble, the fact is we'll never truly know how many people died directly and indirectly as a result of this tragedy. There is no registry of the dead.

"At least this one got a funeral," a mourner at my cousin's funeral mumbled as she passed the family before the service.

NEED TO CRY

She was among hundreds who had crowded the Notre Dame du Mont Carmel church in hard-hit Carrefour. Many didn't know him, but they came, I suspect, because they needed to mourn, they needed to cry, for their own loss in a nation of many losses.

With just over half of the 1.2 million people who lost homes in the quake still in need of shelter, the disaster-filled rainy season looming and people still without aid, there is no real sense of when the despair will once again transform into hope.

"Because of the quake, there is a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress because the situation is still not resolved," Lassegue said. "People don't have enough tents, people do not receive enough food and water -- if you could have taken a picture one week or two weeks after, you would see the picture has not changed."

But the tears here are not just for the dead. They are also for the living.

"I am crying for what has arrived," Joseline Marhone-Pierre, a physician who lost her home in the quake and now sleeps on the floor of a make-shift clinic in a church yard of Saint-Louis Roi de France, told me. "I'm looking at my reality and I don't see tomorrow."

The morning before my visit to Leogane, Marhone-Pierre and a team of volunteer doctors, many Cuban Americans from Miami, were saving lives. On the other side of the church yard, mourners were bidding farewell to another life.

"It's not what I lost that makes me feel bad," she said, her eyes welling with tears. ‘‘When I see people come here -- and at times we have to treat them for as long as two months or overnight -- I look at them and I have more pain for their suffering than my own."

"I never thought I would live this," she said.

Like Marhone-Pierre, neither did I.

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