Death and Dying in Haitian Culture
People of Haiti are mostly known for their voodoo beliefs. Actually, voodoo has a great impact on their attitude towards dying and death, funeral and rituals related to it. Death rituals are unusual and peculiar, and different from those among other Caribbean nations. Specific local beliefs, such as voodoo are very influential for Haitians who are mainly Roman Catholics. Original Haitian religion formed the general perception of most Haitians about death as not about the end of life, but rather an afterlife; therefore, Haitians carry out many rituals just before and after the death.
Death rituals before death are as important for Haitians as rites after the death. Therefore, burial is not the only rite related to death and a person is also involved in some activities while dying. Munro (2010) states that “in Haiti, baptism, marriage and burials remain unshakeable foundations of the society”. It is an important event for Haitians, and when their relative is dying, the entire family is involved to give a see-off to a dying person. Because of it, Haitians prefer to die at home if possible (Purnell, 2012). A person’s relative who is to die soon has to inform his/ her family members about it if he/ she can and make some funeral arrangements. During pre-burial activity called veye, the family prays, cries hysterically and uses special medallions that are supposed to protect a soul of a dying person; also a dying person takes the last bath (Purnell, 2012).
Some means of protection of the soul are very important for Haitians. For instance, in addition to various protective medallions, people of Haiti also carry out a special prayer service. This service is called the ‘dernie priye’ and lasts for seven consecutive days (Purnell, 2012). It is supposed to help a soul to pass through this world into another. After ‘dernie priye’, another prayer service follows that is called ‘prise de deuil’. This prayer service begins “the official mourning process in Haiti” (Colin, 2010). Only ‘prise de deuil’ and ‘dernie priye’ are held, the memory of a deceased is considered to be accomplished.
Actually, one of the most strongest fears in the Haitian society is to become a zombie after death. Obviously, this fear is provoked by local beliefs in the power of voodoo; therefore, voodoo practitioners are also involved in rituals in order to prevent someone’s body from turning into zombie (Colin, 2010). Therefore, pre-burial activities include several important rites for Haitians. According to Ng Cheong-Lum (2005), such precautions as “stabbing the corpse in the heart with a knife before burial, and clipping the hair and nails of the deceased and burying the clippings with the body” are supposed to prevent the dead from turning into a zombie. Zombification is considered to be one of the greatest punishments among Haitian people, therefore, these precautions may seem disrespectful towards the dead person. For instance, Colin (2010) also states that paranoia about zombification also makes Haitians to poison the body. Additionally, they “request autopsy to ensure that patient is really dead” (Purnell, 2012).
Thus, it is very important for Haitians to be sure that a person died naturally. Moreover, the nature of death is relevant for a so-called baron who is “the main person responsible for the cemetery who digs graves and maintains grounds” (Felix, 2009). For instance, according to Felix (2009), a baron “can give a permission to take the dead out of their grave if they did not die a natural death”. This is a reason why some Haitians cannot bury their relatives at a cemetery. This issue became especially topical after the deadly earthquake in Haiti.
Finally, the body has an extremely important role for Haitians who believe in life after death and resurrection; therefore, cremation is prohibited. It is supposed by Haitians that it can prevent a person from a resurrection (Purnell, 2012). For such people as Haitians, it has a very important role because they believe in afterlife. Afterlife for Haitians is as significant as the current life. All in all, Haitians even consider sicknesses to be supernatural phenomena that also influences on their afterlife, and should be cured by voodoo sorcerer.
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However, even having such a strong local religious background, not all Haitians believe in it. Colin (2010) states that many Haitian families reject voodoo-based rites before and after the death and follow more conventional burial traditions. They are not very different from Western funeral rites. It is related either to Haitians who moved to America, or to Haitians who live in their homeland. Moreover, the influence of Christian missionaries is also strong enough in Haiti that also makes people adapt themselves to the Western traditions and rites during a burial. Additionally, the opposition of Christian missionaries to voodoo lead to gradual decrease of its popularity among Haitians (Munro, 2010). They do not accept voodoo beliefs about death and its traditions. Therefore, Christian missionaries fiercely oppose these local customs in Haiti.
Death rituals and traditions of Haitian people are very specific to Western people. Although Haitians are mostly Roman Catholics, the influence of their local beliefs is considerable; they combine it with Christianity. People of Haiti consider sickness and death to be supernatural phenomena that provokes them to perform numerous rites before death and after it. The concept of soul is extremely strong in Haiti; therefore, people are very concerned about its safety after death. The afterlife has a great role in Haitian culture, and the fear to become a zombie is still strong among people. Nevertheless, all these prejudices and traditions about death does not mean that all Haitians are convinced about voodoo and follow these rites. Many of them switched to Christian burial traditions and gave up their local beliefs about death.