In Haiti, festive wakes and Voodoo undertakers help mourners say their last goodbyes
Grand-Bera, Haiti
Photography by
Valerie Baeriswyl.

Reporting by
Andre Paultre.
Updated 27 September
34 images
Anaira Jules, who lived her whole life in a small hamlet in rural Haiti, had never set foot on a plane. But for her last journey, she was sent off in a gleaming white, plane-shaped coffin complete with a wing-tail and illuminated portholes.
Sisters Fredeline and Carine Alfred are shown the lights for the airplane-shaped coffin chosen for their recently deceased mother, Anaira Jules.
Mourners fell into trance-like states or wept at the church funeral service for the 77-year old in Grand-Bera, in Haiti's central department of Artibonite. A marching brass band afterwards accompanied the large procession that carried the plane-coffin to the cemetery.
Madame Sinistre, Berno and Voltaire, relatives of the deceased, Anaira Jules, dance with her coffin behind a marching band.
The night before the funeral, around 200 people played dominos and cards, drank ginger tea and clairin - Haiti's rustic, rum-like spirit - and ate local dishes under a tarpaulin outside the family house as a DJ played evangelical music.
"Ever since I was little, my mother would tell me it was important for her that her funeral go well," said Jules' youngest daughter, Fredeline Alfred, 30. "My elder sister was in charge and she likes showing off."
A festive wake and a lavish funeral with a display of dramatic emotions and fanfare bands – these are just some of Haiti's death rites, which, like its weddings, are often extravagant social events despite the country's poverty.
The grandchildren of the deceased, Anaira Jules, carry flowers to a tomb where the coffin will be placed.
The rites are viewed as important to guarantee a safe passage to the afterworld – with cremations and organ donations rare because the deceased are deemed still to need their bodies - but also a way to mark one's social standing.
Pastor Samson, prophet of the Defender of the Christian Faith church, reads a last prayer in Belladere Cemetery.
Traditions from the Afro-Caribbean religion Voodoo are often mixed with Christian ones. Voodoo undertakers - called croque-mort ('dead-biter' in French) - prescribe what families need to place in the coffins in order to assure a safe journey and ensure the dead are not turned into zombies.
Alfred said her family did not hold a funeral until three weeks after her mother's death, as they needed time to repaint her house to receive guests and build a new tomb.
Friends and family of the deceased, Joseph Anselme Benoit, sit together in a room to recite voodoo songs and prayers, and drink clairin, in Casale.
They rented a bus to transport guests from out of town, set up a tarpaulin in the courtyard, and put out tables and chairs for the wake, which is typically a festive affair in Haiti where mourners may choose to dance, sing or tell jokes until dawn.
For several days after the funeral, people continued to congregate there.
Yolvida Desruisseaux, 28, who recently buried the father of her godfather, said this tradition of turning a funeral into a multi-day social event was a balm to the soul of mourning families.
A band lead a procession, during the funeral of Violette Jean, from the church to the cemetery gates in Plaisance.
"The family is sad but it's good to have this kind of ambience so we can smile a bit," she said. "The guests sometimes help us with tasks in the house and chat with us to help us get through the worst."
At the cemetery where her godfather's father was buried, one mourner shot bullets into the air – a sign of respect.
Haitians dress the corpses of their loved ones for funerals with an ease that perhaps reflects their familiarity with death.
A man fires bullets into the air as a sign of respect for the social standing of the deceased, Joseph Anselme Benoit.
Disease, malnutrition and natural disasters are rife in the Caribbean country, while healthcare is poor, leading to the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the Western Hemisphere.
The average life expectancy is just 64 years old.
Rode Naika Joseph and her brother Rodelin Joseph mourn with cousins and nephews of the deceased, Violette Jean, at the gates of the cemetery in Plaisance.
In families that follow Voodoo rites - estimated to tally more than half of Haiti's 11 million people - the croque-mort helps to prepare the body for burial.
Feguenson Hermogene, a 32-year old sociologist who recently buried his aunt, said stones were placed in her hands in her coffin to help her combat any evil spirits that may wish her harm.
A family friend places coconut cassava on the deceased, Violette Jean, in Limbe.
"You can also include a knife or a machete," he said, describing the croque-mort as like "a doctor who gives you a prescription."
Hermogene said that in rural areas where there were no morgues, the croque-mort would also know how to embalm the body with leaves. Offerings to the Voodoo spirits – grilled corn, yams, soda, sweets – are typically laid out on a table.
There was a lot of social pressure to provide an impressive send-off, said Hermogene. And while there was solidarity, with people coming to cook or contributing food, that didn't come close to offsetting the costs.
Women prepare food for the funeral of Anaira Jules taking place the following day.
Alfred said the funeral alone cost her family the equivalent of $2,122, while the wake cost another $3,000 – a fortune in a country where two-thirds of the population make less than $2 per day.
Oftentimes relatives in the diaspora will help, asking to be zoomed into the funeral by videocall, but other times people will go into debt to pay the costs.
Alfred said she struggled to pay rent and feed her family after paying so much. But it was all worth it for her mother.
"The last time she spoke to me," she said, "she held me in her arms, and told me she would never stop loving me."
(Photo editing Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson; Text editing Sarah Marsh; Layout Kezia Levitas)
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