All Souls Day, or Day of the Dead, is celebrated in the Catholic Church on November 2 to honor the deceased. Traditionally, believers pray for late relatives to help their souls find peace. Not unlike this tradition, Haitian Voodoo worshipers make sacrifices and hold religious ceremonies on this same day in order to please their departed ancestors.
On the first and second days of November, parades of people can be seen marching down the streets of Port-au-Prince and in cemeteries with white chalk or paint on their faces to represent the ashen face of death. They burn candles over gravestones to give the dead light in the afterlife, and offer rum, coffee and food for sustenance. By honoring the spirits, or gede (pronounced ge-day), the living will be provided with protection and blessings here on earth. On this day and during other religious rituals, the lwa (a general term for gede) can inhabit the body of a living person to deliver a message to a loved one or interact with that person. The ceremonies are truly remarkable to witness, as they are rich with vibrant colors and animated dancing, and are saturated with ancient symbolism.
For a culture that believes so strongly in honoring the dead and respecting the spirits in the afterlife, it is especially tragic that a vast percentage of the population cannot afford to give their loved ones a respectful burial. In turn, the city morgue in Port-au-Prince is overrun with unclaimed dead. Father Rick, upon learning of this degradation, began burying these bodies and offering his blessing during mass funerals every Thursday in a graveyard that overlooks the Caribbean and is far from the chaos of the city. The beauty of the cemetery is a stunning homage to the otherwise forgotten dead.
On November 2, this past Monday, to observe All Soul’s Day in the Catholic tradition, Father Rick visited the city morgue to lead a prayer and give a blessing to the unfortunate souls in its two refrigerated chambers. Then, alongside fellow priest Father Aupont, he led mass in the aforementioned graveyard. After the ceremony ended, as the traditional Haitian funeral band played, every person in attendance placed a flower over one of the graves marked with a simple wooden or metal cross.
In stark contrast to the horrors of the city morgue, the peacefulness of this moment was therapeutic and uplifting. Personally, I find the ceremony to be a reflection of my work and experience in Haiti. Living amid the abundance of poverty, death and misery of this country is emotionally draining. But I am inspired and re-energized by the moments of beauty which are often a direct result of our work here; for example a malnourished child nursed back to health and taking her first steps, or an orphaned child graduating from school and attending university.
Coinciding with All Souls Day was the trial run for the Francisville bakery (see post below). So, after all the graves had been adorned with flowers, we gathered once again for a picnic of fresh pizza and bread. One might consider a picnic in a graveyard to be unconventional, but I have learned to not be surprised by such events in Haiti. The occasion, in fact, was an opportune time to promote our products to the other NGOs in attendance and if we are to learn any lesson from our dead ancestors it would be to enjoy life’s simple pleasures whenever, and wherever, possible.