Haitian Culture: Death and Dying
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Keywords: religion in haiti, haiti funeral ritual,
From one of the poorest countries in the world comes one of the most complex and varied religions. Although very different from much of the world, Haitian customs regarding end of life, funeral practices, the dead and the practice of Voodoo has evolved throughout the past several centuries. From the very beginnings of the Island to the present the Haitian people have practiced their own variance of religion unlike any other place in the world.
I have been to Haiti many times with my church and find it absolutely heartbreaking. Poverty and lack of any significant healthcare system aided and fueled by a corrupt government begets one of most broken societies in the western world. The last time I was there was the first time in recent history that Voodoo wasn't the national religion. Haiti has always claimed Roman Catholicism officially but until very recently most Haitians practiced voodoo alongside it with no sense of contrast between the two. Although the culture is split between Christianity and Voodoo, most churches don't turn people away who need care if they can provide it. By the same token, those who practice Voodoo do not shy away from health centers in favor of only being treated by the Voodoo priest or witch doctor. However, most hospitals are in the city so for rural Haitians seeing a voodoo healer is the only option.
While in our compound in Borel (a rural town about 100 miles north of Port a prince) I could hear the drums of the voodoo ceremonies from beyond our walls, and more than once have seen the Christian funeral processions in the streets. I remember watching the vigils of the folks sitting in the cemeteries and asking my interpreter guide about what was going on at night and about the rituals and about how and why they worked the way they do. In order to accomplish this we must first do our best to understand a little of how Haiti came to exist
Haiti is best known to be discovered by Christopher Columbus, but there were many cultures that inhabited the land before his arrival in 1492. The first known settlers were the Ciboneys, who migrated from what is now known as North America in 450 A.D. Then in 900 A.D., the Tainos, who belonged to the Arawak nation, settled in large villages. The Arawak Indians called the land 'Ayiti', which means 'land of mountains'. Columbus left Spaniards in charge of the land and they became responsible of almost terminating all of the Arawaks This caused the island to be empty for many years until the French colonized the land in the middle of seventeenth century. During France's reign, Haiti became one of the most prominent countries in the world. Resources such as sugar cane, cotton, cocoa, and coffee became the most important sources to Haiti's wealth. These resources became a high demand by European markets and because of the increase in demand, the French needed cheap labor. As other countries did, the French looked towards Africa for slaves and since the slaves were not treated fairly, they soon became France's downfall. It was during this time that the catholic French began converting the slaves who also held on to their ancient voodoo religion but practiced in secret. Eventually the two became intertwined. The slaves became the most important thing to Haiti's economy and future and in the year of 1791, the slaves planned a revolt against the French and became successful. In 1804, the slaves took over Napoleon's reign and Haiti became the first independent black nation headed by General Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Dessalines was a poor leader and upon his death the country was split into two, making Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Today, the population is over 5 million and especially after the earthquake is excessively poor and very urbanized. It has constantly struggled economically after winning its independence, has not found an answer to the enormous poverty problems and is highly reliant on aid from other countries. Without a stable government or means of supporting itself Haiti remains at the bottom of economic and political power. The people of Haiti are mainly of African origin and speak either Haitian Creole (a unique dialect of French) or French and are Roman Catholic and Protestant or voodoo worshippers. Voodoo has been the best known feature of Haiti and has gained an image (mostly from Hollywood horror films) of being a country of sorcery and zombies.
The religion of voodoo is monotheistic religion in which there a certain classes of spirits and lesser gods all subservient of the one true God. One of the main functions of these lesser gods or "Lwa"/loah cause or cure illness. Most all of the voodoo ritual is centered upon this one function and is taken as science for most the people of Haiti. Virtually all of the modern medicine practiced in Haiti is centered around the cities and therefore rural Haitians will almost always consult a healer practicing voodoo. The roots of voodoo run deep as does Christianity. None of us would find it strange to find healing through our faith and so it goes for the Haitians. A healer may use such things as putting a knife under a bed to "cut" pain or tie knot in string to choke out swelling. If the patient suffers from pain he may believe that a spell has been put on him or a curse. If the pain is "imagined" from the knowledge of someone placing the curse on him the spell to remove it may be just as effective. This where the dolls of the movies come into play. A pin in the head of the doll is meant to relieve the pain not cause it, and a Haitian who believes this process may believe he is healed as a result of the ceremony. Those who practice voodoo do not believe that death is the end of life. Followers of Voodoo believe that each person has a soul and that it contains both the a part of the person and a part of the larger universe
When someone dies, the soul stays close to the deceased for seven to nine days. During this time the soul can be captured and used by an evil one and made into a zombie to be enslaved to serve the one who made him. As long as the soul is not captured, a ritual called Nine Night is performed in order to completely release the soul from the body so the soul may live in the dark waters for a period of a year and a day. If this is not done correctly, the soul may have to wander the earth and do harm to others.
After three hundred and sixty six days, loved ones of the deceased can initiate the "Rite of Reclamation" to raise the deceased person's soul essence from the dark waters and put it in a clay jar known as a govi. The clay jar may be placed in a temple or on an altar where the family may come and offer gifts and feed it offer it drink and pay homage to it. and At this time the spirit of the deceased is welcomed to enter a loved one and give them any last words of enlightenment. Sometimes the jar is then broken and the pieces dropped at a crossroads. This completes the purpose of the ritual which is to release the spirit until the final incarnation.
In keeping with addressing t The four primary dimensions of coping with dying the physical psychological social and spiritual
I will list some other common practices Haitians use in their culture when dealing with those at the end of life. When death is certain, the family will come together and bring with them religious artifacts. They will go to great expense and extremes to be together as it so important to be present if possible at the time of death.. Once they are together they will cry and pray. It is preferable for most Haitians that they die at home surrounded by loved ones. However, hospital deaths are not out of the question. At the moment of death there is ritual wailing and final bath is given. In Haiti the eldest family member takes charge of the funeral arrangements, but the body is kept until everyone can make it home for the funeral. Funerals are extremely signifigant social events and last for several days in which rum is consumed and large amounts of food.during this time family will sleep at the house and friends will stay in the yard. Since most Haitians are reluctant to be buried under ground elaborate multi-chambered tombs are bought which will contain several members or entire families. Since the body must be intact for resurrection at the end of days no organ donations are permitted.
Since voodoo lacks any real theology many variations exist. Regional and cultural differences make doing solid research elusive and sparse as what is practiced in one place may or may not be practiced in another. Common beliefs about the afterlife are that there is no reward or punishment there. Spirits can enter or "mount" a body. At that time the person will not share the same space and becomes possessed by the Loa. Priest both summon and help the spirit leave a body. Drums, dance, and sacrifice are part of all voodoo ritual.
In conclusion, Haitians have one of the shortest life expectancies on earth (61 years for adult males), so Haitians are used to living with pain, sickness and death. They are basically a peace loving people seeking hope in a land that that doesn't offer much. Like my own religion and culture the people of Haiti bond by practicing the religion and culture of their parents and ancestors. What some of us find superstitious, exotic and strange when looked at more closely is not so different at all. Practicing religion and doing it as a family and a community brings us closer to an understanding of purpose and meaning whether it is true or not. Without tradition and ritual we have much less in common and much less of a reason to carry on. Purpose to pass on to the next generation keeps going and going strong. Perhaps that is why the modern Haitians continue to exist today.
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