Tending Haiti’s dead: ‘Everybody needs someone to bury them’
Abandoned dead in poverty-stricken Caribbean state given dignified burial by charity
Raphaël Louigene, who leads the burial team for the St Luke Foundation, moves a body on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince in Haiti. Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times
The 10 men step into their white polypropylene coveralls, zip them up, and then snap on latex gloves. Some knot plastic bags around their running shoes. Others fashion white funeral palls into makeshift surgical caps.
These are their “blouz mò”. Their death smocks. One worker fishes out a pack of menthol cigarettes from his pocket and offers them around. Another twists open a bottle of rum, tips back a bracing slug and hands it to the man beside him, who does the same. They are steeling themselves for the grisly task ahead.
It is 11 on a hot September morning, and the men have come to collect the unclaimed dead, abandoned in the morgues of the biggest funeral parlour on downtown’s Rue de l’Enterrement – Burial Road.
Like the country itself, Burial Road stretches between those who have everything and those with nothing. Even modest funeral parlours offer elaborate services starting at $1,100 (€930) – far beyond the means of most Haitians, who live on $2 a day or less.
No matter how rich in love they may be, most people can’t pay those fees. And so, the bodies of their sons and mothers wait here so long that their faces melt, their skin unravels. They are stacked one atop another in gruesome, wet piles that resemble medieval paintings of purgatory.
The men who have finally come to their rescue aren’t friends or relatives. They don’t know their individual stories. But they recognise poverty. “They didn’t have a chance,” says Raphaël Louigene, the burial team’s stocky, soft-spoken leader. “They spent their lives in misery, they died in misery.”
Louigene and the other men work for the St Luke Foundation for Haiti, a charitable organisation founded in 2000 to help the country’s poorest. It was started by the men’s boss and father figure, Rick Frechette, an American Catholic priest and doctor.
For the past decade, the team has come to collect the abandoned dead and bury them in a distant cemetery. There aren’t any headstones. But St Luke is trying to offer a modicum of dignity – a funeral pall, a coffin, a grave, some uplifting hymns and solemn prayers. Before the burial team stepped in, the jumbled bodies were dumped in the desert, into giant pits or just out in the open.
For most of the men, this is a small part of their work. They run foundation schools, oversee construction jobs, respond to emergencies such as last year’s devastating hurricane that are endemic to Haiti. Louigene (35) is a social worker in the country’s worst slum – helping women start up small market businesses and fix the leaking roofs on their houses.
His phone rings incessantly with their calls for help. But large parts of his days are spent tending to the dead. He sees it as another edge of his social justice calling. “How many years we have done this – can you imagine?” he says. “They put them out like garbage. It’s not fair.”
Like most Haitians, the men are intimately familiar with death in ways North Americans and Europeans have not been for almost a century. They know people whose lives are cut short by violence or easily treated illnesses – dysentery, pneumonia, malnutrition and, more recently, cholera. Complications of pregnancy and childbirth add to the toll.
This has been the case in Haiti for decades. After the devastating 2010 earthquake, which killed 220,000 to 316,000 people, world leaders promised to finally help the small country “build back better” and change that. Despite billions of dollars of aid, Haiti has largely settled back into its deeply rutted status quo of blistering unemployment, a threadbare and tattered social safety net, corruption and caustic poverty. One in four Haitians is chronically hungry.
All of the men on the burial team grew up poor. Many were orphans. They see themselves in the bodies they pick up, particularly the children. This September morning, there are 14 children in the morgue. There are no shelves – the corpses are piled atop one another on the floor of a dungeonlike room. In one corner rises a stack of seven.
Some wear nappies. Others, like the little boy in a blue T-shirt and striped shorts, seem dressed for a Sunday outing. The men pull out their thawing bodies, one by one, as flies dart about. They place them like puzzle pieces into three coffins. It is an economical decision, but the sight of them cuddled together gives an odd comfort: they are not alone.
“Sometimes I cry,” says Louigene, stopping for another swig of rum. “These children – they had no money for medication, for food. It makes me sad. This is what happens with no development.”
Seventy minutes later, their gruesome task finished, the men snap off their gloves and rinse each other’s hands with what booze remains in their bottles. They do this every four to six weeks, collecting as few as two dozen bodies at a time and as many as 120. Most trips, there are too many bodies for them to pick up. But around Christmas, they can’t bear to leave any behind. Over the years, it has become easier, but not much. Louigene says he sometimes hears the dead in his sleep. They urge him to continue.
Louigene palms the wheel of his grey truck following the van full of coffins. A white rosary swings from the rear-view mirror. A loaded Smith & Wesson pistol is tucked in his glove compartment.
“Everybody needs someone to bury them,” he says, picking up the reasons he was doing this – burying strangers – before being cut short again by the ring of his mobile phone. “Maybe if I die somewhere and my family won’t be able to find me, somebody else will do my funeral.”
His ringtone is a soft techno beat. It sounds so often it seems like background music. Time and again, he glances at the number and ignores the call. In the back seat, three colleagues are decompressing from the horror of their work at the morgue.
But Louigene has seen worse. Most of his childhood was spent living in a tin hut in the violent slum of Pele Simon. He had no running water, or electricity. He slept on the dirt floor under his mother’s bed. He remembers being so hungry that he dipped his tongue in salt and drank water to fill his belly.
After trying his hand at masonry and security, he landed at a local missionary health clinic, first cleaning and then caring for patients with HIV and tuberculosis. That’s where he met Frechette, who was volunteering his freshly acquired medical skills.
Louigene considers the day Frechette hired him as a sign of God’s grace. “Right now, I have power,” he says. “I can stop things. I help a lot of people. They have respect for me. Before, I had none.”
All this good work comes with a price. Louigene can’t walk the slum’s serpentine footpaths without a political rally forming – arms touching him from all sides, demands hollered from the edges. “Everyone loves me when they have trouble,” says Louigene.
When he reaches the slum’s edge, Louigene finally answers his phone. It is his six-year-old son, Ralph Prince, calling from Fort Myers in Florida. He and Louigene’s wife moved there two years ago, after a gangster threatened to hurt them because of Louigene’s work.
“Have you had something to eat?” Louigene asks in English over WhatsApp. His family wants him to move to the United States – his life would be so much easier, and he’d be out of danger’s way. But most important, they’d be together. But Louigene is determined to stay in Haiti, where he is useful to both the living and the dead. “If everybody moves away,” he says, “this country will crash.” – New York Times