Death is very common in Haiti. It is, of course, common to all countries, but in developing nations where nutrition and medical care are sparse, it is much more common indeed. In Haiti, however, people die at earlier ages from a variety of more treatable diseases and due to more avoidable accidents than many other countries, particularly first world countries. As with life, Haitians face death with a mixture of sorrow and celebration, bravely facing the difficult world they face.
Death isn’t a very happy topic for a blog, but it is reality. In the small community of Petite Riviere de Nippes there are deaths at least weekly, sometimes multiple deaths in a week. I’m not sufficiently embedded in the community to know when all the deaths occur or when all the funerals are scheduled, but I learn about them by observing certain activities around me. One of those activities is the traditional African all-night funeral. Some nights I hear drumming and singing, intermingled with the wails of the bereaved. They are close enough to my house that I can hear them, yet not so far as to keep me awake. I fall asleep to the sounds of mourning. When I awaken, it is to those same sounds.
There are more western funerals, some marked by New Orleans-style parades complete with bands. Others are noticeable because of the stream of people headed to a home in their Sunday best, on some day other than Sunday. Some families hold 9-day wakes in which friends and neighbors are invited to come, sit, eat, and drink with the living in memory of the departed. Whatever the means folks use to say goodbye, the farewells are much more frequent, and are for those of much younger ages, than I had been accustomed to seeing in the US.
Why do so many people die so young in Haiti? There are many reasons, among them inadequate nutrition, a dearth of medical services and medicine, a lack of public health education opportunities, and the absence of an effective protective infrastructure for transportation, construction, and other basic services. Because of my work here over the last few years with several different schools I know a lot of people in their teens and early twenties. At least once per month I hear that a young friend of one of them has died. The causes? Often it is due to accidents on unpaved, unmarked highways. Sometimes it is from a disease that went unrecognized until it was too late. Far too often it is because their immune systems had been decimated by inadequate nutrition, improper care of multiple medical conditions, and a lack of knowledge of what to first world residents would be considered basic self-care.
Honestly, it’s getting better, little by little. I’ve been living here for nearly two years, while visiting for about three years more. I can see a difference from the time of my first visit. The lines are a little shorter at the hospital. The clinic in town is operating, seeing a full schedule of patients every day. Although it may be difficult to see this as positive, it is a positive thing indeed. People who once did not receive medical attention are now receiving it. More people are living, and more people are living healthier lives. God grant that these improvements continue.
The pictures that accompany this article are of crypts used to bury the dead in the near-sea level parts of the country (again reminiscent of New Orleans). The homelike designs reflect the Haitian belief that the dead are still with us, to be honored and never forgotten. The bright colors reflect the celebration of life, an inevitable companion to the grief death brings.
Like Mexico, Haiti celebrates its own Day of the Dead. There are many similarities in the celebration of the countries. The core for both is the decision to remember that our ancestors are with us. They helped make us who we are today and, perhaps somewhere they help us still, with the prayers they offer and the assistance they whisper when the walls between the worlds grow thin.