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‘It’s a work of mercy to bury the dead’

A worker removes baby's remains from refrigerated storage unit outside NPH St. Damien Pediatric Hospital Tabarre. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

A worker removes a baby's remains from a refrigerated storage unit outside of NPH St. Damien Pediatric Hospital in Tabarre. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 24, 2013 7:57PM



It’s barely daybreak in Haiti, and already dozens of mothers and their kids are lined outside the gates to St. Damien Pediatric Hospital, sweating for a chance to see a doctor.

Volunteer doctors, who’ve come from around the world, are awake and prepping for a full day’s work.

Inside St. Philomena Chapel, located next to the hospital, two corpses are wrapped in a tarp. Like most days, there will be a funeral. And because it happens to be a Thursday, the mother and small child under the wrap will serve as just an introduction to a full day of mourning.

Each Thursday, the Rev. Rick Frechette heads a group of about a dozen men — some volunteers from Port-au-Prince — to the city morgue. Their job is a gruesome one — albeit spiritually necessary — hauling Haiti’s decaying, unclaimed bodies out for proper burial.

“This is one of the side effects of poverty that people don’t think about, the lack of dignity,” said Frechette, regional director of Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos, Caribbean. “Death here is nothing like death in the United States.”

While they wait in the heat for the morgue director to decide which bodies have gone unclaimed long enough to be buried, the men, along with singer Esther Desir, prepare for the task at hand.

They swig shots from a communal rum bottle. They smoke cigars. They sing, clap hands and dance.

Cameras aren’t allowed in the morgue. Some of the workers practice or fear voodoo. Being photographed, to them, means losing their soul.

Inside, bodies are stacked several feet high, on the floor and on shelves. They are rotting. The penetrating stench is sickening.

Frechette says he smokes a cigar to keep from retching.

Somehow, the men carry out the somber and revolting job. They enter the cold chamber and begin carrying bodies, some barely intact, some separated from their heads, outside to be laid on bags that line a narrow hallway. Up to five children are sometimes placed in a single bag.

Frechette places a rosary atop each body. Then he covers it with a burial pall.

The dismal morgue seems a million miles from St. Dennis Church in Lockport or Zion Lutheran Church in Tinley Park. Yet, they’re connected in eternity by the burial palls created and decorated by the local church congregants. So far, pall makers have sent 26,000 to Haiti. But the dead keep coming.

The bodies are then hauled out to a flatbed truck.

For the visitor — and there have been many, including journalists, doctors and curious onlookers — the event is almost always overwhelming.

John Shattuck has witnessed the routine several times, including once with his oldest son, a college student who wants to work in the medical field.

“More than anything, it’s the smell that gets to you,” Shattuck warns.

Cotton balls soaked in tea tree oil and stuffed into nostrils help Shattuck cope with the stench.

In the dark narrow hallway, the a capella strains of Creole church hymns reverberate.

From several feet down the hall, the bodies appear as one giant heap. Limbs, let alone faces, are barely discernible. Tangled remains are stacked on shelves, an arm hanging here, a leg there. A dead baby is lying on a shelf near the door, its head suspended backward to reveal a single tear frozen on its cheek.

Haitians seem accustomed to this inequity, this unfairness.

“It’s a work of mercy to bury the dead,” Frechette says. “It is the right thing to do.”

People, none of them Haitian, sometimes ask him: Why not just burn the bodies? Why go through this lengthy process of wrapping, blessing and burying each one?

“I tell them if you think the dead are garbage, when your mother dies put her in the garbage at the curb,” Frechette says.

He calls his burial crew The Grateful Dead. He joins them in song.

“Nobody could do this alone, so we make it a deliverance,” Frechette said. “We take these poor souls from a horror to a world garden by the sea.”

That garden, a cemetery with a name that translates to “Less Than Nothing,” overlooks the bright blue Caribbean. It contains 10,000 graves blessed by Frechette, but it also is the same place that Francois Duvalier, nicknamed Papa Doc, buried the 30,000 Haitians he had murdered during his regime.

Once again, the contradiction that has a stranglehold on Haiti is apparent. Wherever there is good, there is almost always bad, where there is joy, there is also deep sorrow. And where there is beauty, there is likely a history of ugliness.

Two flatbed trucks filled with bodies and workers, as well as doctors from St. Damien, maneuver the streets of Port-au-Prince to the burial ground. The white doctors standing alongside the bodies in the pickup trucks are spared the usual panhandling requests from the locals. Everyone in the street knows these trucks carry the dead.

At the site, the bodies are placed in shallow graves. Frechette blesses each one while a hired band plays upbeat songs, including “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

By the end of the ceremony, people are smiling, hugging and, most definitely, exhaling. That is Haiti, one minute unbearable, the next embraceable.

His job done for the day, Frechette climbs on the back of a motorcycle and heads back to St. Damien.

The group is relieved as they head out of the cemetery. The worst is over.

Then they see her.

A woman, naked and rail-thin, lies apparently dying on the side of the road. Some passers-by have tossed her chunks of bread. She seems beyond hope — open sores, rotting. She has the smell of death.

The burial truck stops. Everyone, led by the medics, rushes to her side, forgetting that they have already put in seven long hours of emotionally draining work.

They place the woman on an extra body bag and carry her to the flatbed.

They say it is doubtful they can save her, given the extent of her ulcers, and the massive number of maggots already laying claim to her body.

“She will probably die,” one said. “But we will clean her up and comfort her. At least she will not die alone, on the side of the road.”



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