He was dead on the side of the road. Or so they thought. He looked dead, but he wasn’t. That is how it has been in Haiti: it is not always easy to tell the dead from the living. This person was totally disheveled, dirty and motionless. He lay there without moving. But he was quick to respond when the members of St. Luc’s told him that they were preparing to bury him. He ran. I would have too!
A good part of the pastoral response to the disaster that I have participated in since coming to St. Damien’s has been dealing with the dying and the dead: praying for and anointing the former and burying the latter.
The bodies were piled on top of each other at the public morgue that Thursday. We were there to retrieve and then bury those who had been either left by others or found abandoned – name unknown.
The morgue was dark, smelly and wet. Some of the bodies had been there for a week or more – left to decompose rather than being embalmed; exposed rather than clothed. The burned-out bulbs and the stench did not dampen our spirits though. We were there to witness to the innate dignity of these people – sons and daughters of God.
We were a team of about 14 people – led by Fr. Rick. He helped the workers pull the bodies out of the rooms in the morgue and then place them in the body bags. A visiting orthopedic surgeon would first place a pall on the body – a beautifully decorated piece of cloth with a cross or an image of the Blessed Virgin. Then a lay Italian woman would place a rosary on top of the pall. Finally, prior to the bag being closed and carried to the truck, I would bless the person – in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. As we repeated this ritual with each person – 40 in all – we were led in prayer by Fr. Rick and in song by Esther, a woman with a beautiful voice whose repertoire of Creole songs was impressive. The whole experience was “filled with the Spirit”, to say the least. We prayed and sang and many cried: putting the bodies in the bags was difficult to do, especially those of the children.
I was particularly moved when the body of a certain young man was brought out and laid in a body bag. He had chains on both his wrists and ankles and ropes were attached to his lower arms. I could only think that he was one of the prisoners who had escaped from the public jail in Port au Prince in the wake of the earthquake. They say some 3,000 people walked right through the prison walls when they crumbled. Freed by the earthquake, this prisoner no doubt had to fight to maintain his new- found freedom. In the end – so it appeared – he lost that battle. He had probably been bound and killed – maybe by his own.
I don’t know exactly why I was so moved by the sight of this prisoner in the body bag. I guess I hoped that he had a chance to experience the Lord’s mercy before it was too late. I guess I thought the cruel irony of the situation after his escape was in a certain sense a metaphor for life: we are born free yet still inescapably enslaved by original sin – an effect of the past. We leave the womb and enter a world full of promise that is also filled with danger.
This prisoner’s past no doubt went with him as he ventured through the walls of the prison – a birth of sorts into a world that offered some promise. But his new-found freedom was fragile. As is ours. The prisoner’s choices, ours and those of others – can result in the loss of freedom and even an untimely and brutal death. In the end, like the prisoner, we can all only hope that the Lord is merciful.
We left the morgue in two big trucks. We were heading to the cemetery plot that Fr. Rick had bought in the wake of the earthquake at a place called Titani. That is a Creole word for “less than nothing”. The name indicates a lot about what people think of the dead.
At Titani the gravediggers had been busy preparing forty open graves – holes 2 ½ feet deep and wide enough to easily accommodate a body. We lay the children and the adults in the graves, and we prayed over them and sang a song that has remained with me to this day – Pie Jesu. We had started singing this in the morgue, and then I sang it for all 40 of the dead people during the whole trip to the burial plots in Titani.
It would be good to sing it for all the victims of the earthquake in Haiti –