Haitian families struggle to find, bury their dead

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Some of the dead in this shattered city line the roads, carefully placed garments shrouding their faces. Others are carried into the hills for quick burials. Hundreds are arrayed in a macabre tangle of limbs outside a morgue, just feet from the grievously wounded.

The living and the dead here share the same space — the sidewalks, the public plazas, the hospitals. The living are frightened of being inside in case another earthquake hits; the dead are everywhere.

On the doorstep of a pharmacy, six bodies were lined up shoulder to shoulder. On the body of one woman, covered in a sheet, rested a small bundle, the tiny leg of an infant sticking out of the wrap.

“It’s beyond description. The disaster, the damage, is just so overwhelming,” said Karel Zelenka, a Catholic Relief Services representative in Haiti. “Everyone has a scarf or something, because the smell is unbearable. … You literally have bodies all over the place.”

The international Red Cross estimates up to 50,000 people were killed in Tuesday’s earthquake. For now, few know what to do with the bodies. People say they’re being left on roadsides and doorsteps so relatives who may have survived can find them, or for families to find transportation for burials.

Some families wouldn’t wait. Relatives of one woman who was killed in the earthquake dug her grave about 20 feet (6 meters) from the road, her body wrapped in a sheet and strapped to a door. Across the street, others dug graves and built a bonfire to keep away flies and ward off the stench.

While the odor can be overpowering, health officials sought to dispel worries about the spread of disease. Pan American Health Organization officials — speaking from Washington — stressed dead bodies are not a significant contagion danger, and cautioned against rapid mass burials or cremations.

“The management of dead bodies needs to be done with the highest regard to families, their wishes and their sensitivities,” said Dr. Jon Kim Andrus, deputy director for the Pan American Health Organization.

In front of the morgue at the Hospital General downtown, family members come to stare over hundreds of bodies covering the parking lot. A woman described the clothes of her daughter to city workers, who moved a sheet to look closely at a body. The smell of death was so strong that everybody not wearing a mask held their hands to their faces.

Nearby, the injured sit on makeshift beds, awaiting medical assistance. The living and the piles of dead are only separated by about 20 feet.

As relief organizations struggle to get supplies and aid to the survivors, few plans were being made for the dead. The international Red Cross said it would ship 3,000 body bags along with tons of aid being sent from Geneva on Thursday night.

Meanwhile, Brazil army officials issued a statement saying many followers of the Voodoo religion would not accept the dead being touched until all of their rituals were concluded. Some experts on the faith validated the claim while others rejected it.

Voodoo, a mix of African religions and Roman Catholicism, is central to Haitian life and is widely observed in some form. The religion often has been wrongly associated with black magic or sorcery, leaving a lingering stereotype against its followers.

But suggestions that survivors are stacking corpses outside Port-au-Prince hospitals because they are waiting for a Voodoo ceremony is inaccurate, said Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, an expert on Haitian Voodoo, also spelled Vodou, in the department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“None of what the Brazilian authorities say makes any sense,” Bellegarde-Smith said in a Thursday e-mail. “They are absolutely wrong! Most Haitians, though they believe in Vodou, are devoted Catholics or Protestants.”

Bob Corbett, professor emeritus of philosophy at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, said most Haitians would certainly want a Voodoo priest or priestess to be at a burial ceremony.

“Relatives would want some consolation, some guidance and ritual,” he said from his St. Louis home. “But it’s clear there is a huge public health problem there with all the bodies, so it’s hard to say what people would prefer in this situation.”

Late Thursday afternoon, the sunset mingled with the concrete dust from the crumbled buildings, tinging the city in a golden mist.

On a patch of dirt on a busy street corner a woman took her last breath. She was 26. Her family said she had been injured in the quake and suffered for two days.

Her family and about two dozen passers-by crowded around. They said a prayer and gently wiped the corners of her mouth before closing her eyes and covering her with a blanket.

Her father sat at the woman’s feet. Like the rest of those in the crowd, he didn’t cry. He sat, visibly drained, seemingly distant. When a journalist asked his daughter’s name, he just shook his head.


Associated Press Writers Gregory Bull in Port-au-Prince, Mike Stobbe in Atlanta and Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.