Ways of Dying – Death as History
Taken during the 2011 Fet Gede – Cemetery at Port-au-Prince
The January 2010 earthquake destroyed many of the tombs leaving the remains of the old dead scattered amongst those who died on the day. 250,000 people lost their lives making the city itself a giant cemetery. Those who were found were cremated in mass funeral pyres. The rest lie under the rubble of thousands of homes, schools and public spaces, haunting the living who know their loved ones lie crushed beneath the stones.
The Grand Cimetière Port-au-Prince lies at the edge of Champ de Mars about 10 minutes walk from the Presidential Palace and the monument to hero of the Haitian revolution, Henri Christophe. It is a proud imposing place and on weekends and holidays filled with vistors. On this day some had come to pay their respects to family. Others, celebrating the Fete Gede (31st October – 7th November) came to present offerings to Baron Samedi – the ‘gadyen’ of all cemeteries and the Voudou Lwa of life and therefore of death. Baron Samedi’s tomb, together with his wife Brijit, lie at the entrance to every cemetery in Haiti, there to protect the dead and the living who pass through. At the center there is a large tree which stands alone. Here worshippers of Mdm Mapinm Ezili place dolls, pictures and symbols of those who are believed to be harmful.
The tombs are above ground each with its own design, colour and size. Because many of the tombs are large they offer a quiet place to sit or rest away from the noise and traffic outside. It is a liberating space and though there is a sense of respect, there’s also the belief that death as a part of life needs to shared rather than shunned and hidden.
The Grand Cimetière represents layers of Haitian history from the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the 2010 earthquake. The Africans brought with them their religions and their gods who were incorporated into Haitian Vodou. Nearby are the monuments to Haitian revolutionary heroes, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christof. 15 minutes away is the grand ‘pink’ the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption which collapsed on January 12th, 2010. Here an untold number of dead remain buried under the rubble. For a moment in history Port-au-Prince became a monument of death but remains a monument to life, it’s a cycle.