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In Haiti, festive wakes and Voodoo undertakers help mourners say their last goodbyes By Reuters


© Reuters. The lights are turned on for Anaira Jules’ coffin, which is an airplane-shaped, by sisters Fredeline Alfred (c) Reuters. Jules who lived her whole life in a small hamlet in r


By Valerie Baeriswyl and Andre Paultre

GRAND-BERA, Haiti (Reuters) – Anaira Jules, who lived her whole life in a small hamlet in rural Haiti, had never set foot on a plane. For her final journey she was taken to her grave in an elegant white coffin with illuminated portholes and a wingtail.

In Haiti’s Central Department of Artibonite, mourners experienced trance-like feelings and wept as they attended the funeral mass for Grand-Bera’s elderly mother. The large procession carrying the plane-coffin into the cemetery was accompanied by a marching brass band.

Around 200 people played cards and dominos the night before, while clairin, Haiti’s traditional spirit, was drank. They also ate Haitian food under a tarpaulin, listening to evangelical music.

Fredeline Alfred (30, Jules’ youngest child) said, “Eversince I was little my mother would tell us it was important that her funeral goes well.” “My older sister was the one in charge. She likes to be proud.”

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

The rites are viewed as important to guarantee a safe passage to the afterworld – with cremations and organ donations rare because the deceased are deemed still to need their bodies – but also a way to mark one’s social standing.

Afro-Caribbean traditions such as Voodoo often mix well with Christian beliefs. Voodoo undertakers – called croque-mort (‘dead-biter’ in French) – prescribe what families need to place in the coffins in order to assure a safe journey and ensure the dead are not turned into zombies.

Alfred explained that her family didn’t hold her funeral until three weeks after the death of her mother. This was because they had to paint her home and make a new grave.

The family rented an SUV to bring guests in from far away, put up a tent in the front yard, and then set up tables and chairs. It was a fun, festive event in Haiti, where people may dance, sing, or joke until the dawn.

People continued to congregate at the cemetery for many days.

Yolvida, aged 28, recently laid the body of the father of her godfather to rest. She said that this custom of making a funeral a social affair for several days was soothing for the grieving families.

It’s hard for the family to be happy, she explained. “Guests sometimes assist us in house chores and have a chat to ease our pain.

At the cemetery where her godfather’s father was buried, one mourner shot bullets into the air – a sign of respect.


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

Malnutrition, disease and natural catastrophes are all common in this Caribbean country. Healthcare is also poor. This has led to high infant and maternal deaths in the Western Hemisphere. Average life expectancy in the Caribbean is only 64 years.

Voodoo rites are followed by more than half the population of Haiti. The croque mort prepares the body for burial.

Feguenson Hermogene is a 32 year old sociologist who recently buried his aunt. He said that stones were put in the coffin of his aunt to protect her from any evil spirits.

The croque-mort is like a doctor giving you a prescription.

Hermogene explained that rural regions without any morgues would have the croque -mort be able to embalm the bodies with leaves. Offerings to the Voodoo spirits – grilled corn, yams, soda, sweets – are typically laid out on a table.

Hermogene stated that it was difficult to send off an impressive farewell. There was some solidarity with many people contributing to the food and cooking, but it didn’t offset the cost.

Alfred said the funeral alone cost her family the equivalent of $2,122, while the wake cost another $3,000 – a fortune in a country where two-thirds of the population make less than $2 per day.

Sometimes relatives from abroad will offer their help by allowing them to see the service via videoconference, while other times they will borrow money to cover the cost.

Alfred claimed that her mother struggled to feed and pay rent after having paid so much. Her mother was able to make it all worthwhile.

“The last time she spoke with me”, she stated, “She held me in the arms and said she wouldn’t stop loving me.”