Over the past month, the world has eagerly followed news stories about the earthquake rescue and relief efforts in Haiti. Humanitarian aid in the form of personnel, medicines, materials, etc., has flowed into the destroyed country from all corners of the globe, not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars pledged in public and private donations. Although there are some who have criticized certain aspects of these efforts (e.g. slow response time, insufficient social and financial aid, etc.), for the most part there has been an unwavering show of support for the Haitian people, and as global citizens we should be proud to have stepped up in the face of such grave tragedy.
Haiti is a nation with a strong spiritual backbone. Despite its long history of political turmoil and seemingly inescapable abject poverty, Haitians find comfort in a rich religious tradition, Vodou (more commonly voodoo). This traditional religion has its roots in 18th century Africa and is inspired by spirit possession performances found in nearly all African nations. During Vodou ceremonies, the spirits “ride” (possess) a living priest or priestess in a dramatic performance of song, dance, food, and emotion. It is said that in these possessions is the “moment of divine grace,” when human being and God become one. As such, the spirits of the dead, especially of one’s deceased ancestors, serve an active, integral part of Haitian religion and culture. [For a more authoritative look at Haitian Vodou, Culture in Peril recommends Alfred Metraux’s Voodoo in Haiti.]
With regards to the burial of relatives, Haitians have one of the most ritually-oriented cultures. A death warrants a proper funeral in a family burial plot, accompanied by the requisite prayers, rites, and traditional displays of respect. To perform this set of rituals is to honor the dead as they so deserve. When such rituals are not performed, Haitians believe that the spirits of the dead are left to wander the earth, forever living as a restless soul.
The January 12 earthquake has severely disrupted these traditional Vodou funerary rituals. The overwhelming number of dead bodies (~212,000 confirmed to date) has necessitated the use of mass graves. Sadly, in the majority of cases, the bodies go uncounted and unidentified. Haitian believers in Vodou are deeply concerned that, as a result of improper burial of human remains, spiritual connections with deceased ancestors will be severed. (Indeed the same low-lying swampland in Titanyen is being used to dispose of the earthquake’s victims as were the political opponents of the Duvaliers, Haiti’s rulers from the 1950s to the 80s. Most Haitians consider it “cursed ground.”) In a religious tradition that so heavily relies on establishing links with the spirit world, it should be considered a sacrilege to deny these people their burial rites. With the very foundation of their traditional religion upended, Haitian culture may be altered in ways that can never be restored.
It should give us hope, though, to see that some individuals have recognized the cultural heritage issue facing the Haitian people. Perhaps there can be a global remembrance ceremony for the Haitian dead, a movement demonstrating that the loss of their heritage amounts to a loss for all human culture. Culture in Peril believes that altruism and cultural consideration on this level is needed not just for the benefit of an already devastated nation, but for the benefit of our common humanity.