Dialoging with the Urban Dead in Haiti

By Smith, Katherine | Southern Quarterly, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Dialoging with the Urban Dead in Haiti


Smith, Katherine, Southern Quarterly


More than fifty years ago, Maya Deren observed that for the adherents of Vodou, "the metaphysical world of les Invisibles is not a vague, mystical notion; it is as a world within a cosmic mirror, peopled by the immortal reflection of all those who had ever confronted it."1 Since Deren 's time, the means of sustaining life have changed dramatically for most Haitians. The population has shifted increasingly to urban centers, most notably Port-au-Prince, which has roughly doubled in size in the past two decades. Rural land in the mountains and plains has been eroded to the point that the production of agriculture has been seriously compromised. Cities lure youth with the hope of jobs, and as potential launching points to search for livelihood abroad. Foreign remittances now make up the largest part of the national economy, and most food is imported. In spite of all this, the service of the Iwa (spirits of Vodou) and the dead remain strong, though not unchanged. So how do Vodouists understand the quotidian life of the dead today? What image does it reflect of the world of the living?

The land and the dead are two resources that are deeply interconnected in Afro-Haitian spiritual practices. Most Haitians do not call these practices "Vodou" per se, but identify as either sévi Iwa (serving the spirits), Katolikfran (straight Catholic), or Protestant. In rural Haiti, the service of the spirits and the dead is inherited through family and based in the eritaj, or ancestral land. Tombs and familial cemeteries demonstrate a claim to the land, and are also the receptacle for offerings of food during the month of November when the dead are celebrated. What happens though when the family is removed from the land and from their ancestors to the city?

As a set of beliefs and practices, the service of the Iwa and the dead in urban Haiti is still primarily concerned with addressing the everyday needs of its adherents, mostly love, money, justice, and healing. The most marked difference between the religious life of rural and urban life in Haiti is how and where the dead are interred. Karen McCarthy Brown (1991) describes the experience of displacement that characterizes the Port-au-Prince necropolis: "(T)he urban cemetery reiterates the city itself; all kinds of people are thrown together within its boundaries. Baron Samdi's partisan help is no longer available. If we take the Port-au-Prince cemetery as a measure, then the answer to the all-important question, Who are my people? Becomes elusive indeed" (371).

Within the massive urban necropolis, the landless and disenfranchised seek the dead as a resource to cope with any number of everyday tragedies. For many of them, the location of their own dead may be unknown because it is common that families without means will rent a tomb temporarily before the remains are taken to a common charnel house. The collective imagining of the dead, then, happens not just as a family but as a city. The Port-au-Prince cemetery becomes the national lakou, and the dead are celebrated publicly November 1st and 2nd during the holiday for Gede, a popular trickster spirit. But outside the public holidays, in the everyday world of the dead, the cemetery is a center for the economic and spiritual life of a small cadre of ritual specialists. For them, the world of the dead is imagined as structured and hierarchical, as a city unto itself.

The Urban Necropolis

Established in the 1 79Os, the Port-au-Prince cemetery first interred British soldiers killed by a yellow fever epidemic during the Revolution. In the nineteenth century, the burial ground developed into an orderly and idyllic sanctuary for the dead. Much like its contemporaries in Paris and London, it featured grand boulevards lined with trees and marble mausoleums. It was an idealized vision of bourgeois society: the gingerbread mansions of Bwa Verna were tawdry compared to its stately mausoleums. Then called the Cimetière Extérieur, it was removed from the city center and the messier world of the living. …

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