In memoriam

This week, a woman in our spiritual family died.  Reflecting on grief, I was reminded of the opening remarks I’d make when our house, Sosyete Nago, hosted a memorial service and fundraiser after Goudougoudou, the earthquake of January 2010.  I thought I’d share them here.

By way of introduction, I’ll add that the memorial service was a tremendous display of people being their best selves.  Over 100 people from the community, many with no direct connection to Vodou or Haiti, came to learn about Vodou and support the people of Haiti.  We raised $2,876, every penny of which was donated to Partners in Health’s work in Haiti.  If you feel moved reading this, please consider making a donation of any amount to Partners in Health’s continued work in Haiti (and make sure to specify that it is for work in Haiti).


Adapted from opening remarks made at “A Ceremony for the Dead: A Haitian Vodou memorial service and fundraiser for Partners in Health” on March 5, 2010 at Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts

When planning this evening’s events, my initiatory mother, Manbo Maude, asked if I would be willing to say something about my grief following the Haitian earthquake.  There is, indeed, a certain visual irony to my experience:  I do not look like someone who would be immediately and intimately affected by events unfolding in Haiti.  Certainly, I do not look like the Hollywood version of a Vodou priest.  For hundreds of years, Vodou practitioners have been portrayed consistently as fanatical retrograde yokels who foolishly cling to outdated superstitions.  Every bit to the contrary of this barbaric vision, I was initiated by people who were enormously cosmopolitan and sophisticated—enough so to overcome the fact that they had many legitimate reasons to distrust me.

As a Vodou priest, I am vigilant about not “playing Haitian.”  I am not Haitian, and I never will be.  However, I am a Vodouisant, and the two cannot and should not ever be disentangled.  Through the mystical process of initiation, I was reborn upon the soil of Haiti.  I owe my life to my Vodou family, and I cannot know that they are suffering without suffering as well.  The fact that so many of you are here tonight speaks moreover to an innate capacity to empathize with others:  We do not have to be intimates to know when someone is in pain.  At our best, our experience of common humanity calls upon us to uplift those who are suffering, regardless of who they are.  As Christ instructs in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, one is a neighbor to someone when one acts neighborly.  It is a choice.

Grief, it seems, is often a night-blooming flower:  Like the jasmine of Haiti, it perfumes the sleep.  During the days following the earthquake, Maude and I spoke repeatedly of how our grief was inaccessible.   We could not cry or even accurately assess the magnitude of our pain.  Yet in sleep, the events replayed themselves.  In my dreams, the dead walked like cranes, long-legged birds whose every step is tentative, first testing the strength of the ground.  It seemed the dead had lost faith in the ability of the earth to uphold them.  Again and again, I dreamt of performing funerals and would awake feeling as though I had labored for most of the night.

The commitment to having a public memorial service arose from a desire to do something that would be of benefit both to the living and to the dead.  In Vodou, the dead continue to be an integral part of the community.   They continue to care for us, love us, guide us and teach us.  As immortal spirits incarnated but briefly in flesh, death is the beginning of the vaster portion of our lives.  Upon physical death, the spirit plunges into the ancestral waters, to be cleansed and tempered.  A year later, the spirit rejoins the community as an ancestor.  To pray for the newly dead—especially those who died under sudden, tragic or violent circumstances—is an important religious obligation.  Vodouisants receive elaborate funerals because they are still present, and require the love and strength of the community to ease their transition to a new state of existence.  While it is impossible for us to provide individual funerals for every one of the hundreds of thousands who died, tonight we will join together to assure the dead that we are commited to helping them find peace.

Additionally, those who survived the earthquake are in mortal need.  Millions in the south of Haiti have lost everything that they had, and are now living in the streets with no way to acquire even the most basic of needs, like food, safe drinking water, and adequate shelter from the elements.  The need of the Haitian people for help will not end in weeks or months.  It will not end in years.  We chose, for tonight’s event, to support Partners in Health because it is a rare case of an international aid organization that actually works—helping people in a big way, and with astonishingly small administrative overhead.

In planning this event, we wished to share with the public a glimpse of our religion—its beauty, integrity and complexity.  We believe that, in many ways, what people think about Vodou is also what they think about Haitians.  If people believe that Vodou is benighted, encouraging waste and discouraging development, they will use this as a convenient excuse to not help Haiti.   Some have even suggested that Vodou was the cause of the Haitian earthquake.  On the contrary, Vodou is integral to the indomitable spirit of the Haitian people.  It summons bravery and strength in the face of adversity.  We hope that this ceremony will shed light on the Vodou tradition and allow you to appreciate its beauty.

The ceremony tonight is divided into two parts.  The first part, the Priyè Ginen, is the traditional beginning to any Vodou service.  It is a sung liturgy, combining Catholic prayers in French and Kreyòl, as well as uniquely Vodou prayers in Kreyòl and langaj, an untranslatable dialect, spoken by the spirits, with roots in African languages.

In the second part of the ceremony, we will sing songs from the bohoun tradition of Vodou funeral music.  These songs focus on images of departure, and often speak with the voice of the dead as they announce that they are leaving.  Even if you don’t speak Kreyòl, we encourage you to try to sing along, even if its just to hum.  Singing is an important part of Vodou because it conveys intent and power.  When we sing the song, “Nibo se,” we will process around the room and then salute the altar.

Nibo se, Nibo mache n a wè yo, Nibo se.
Nibo se, Nibo mache n a wè yo, Nibo se.
Di Jakomèl nou prale Minao,
Minao nou prale Gelefwe la.
Nibo se, Nibo mache n a wè yo, Nibo se.

[Loose translation:]
They are newly dead, we will walk to see them, the newly dead.
They are newly dead, we will walk to see them, the newly dead.
From Jacmel, we are going to Minao,
From Minao, we will go to Gelefwe.
They are newly dead, we will walk to see them, the newly dead. 

This song encourages the dead to take leave of the world and seek their rest in Gelefwe, the land of the dead.  After we are done saluting, we will invite anyone who wishes to come to the altar and salute, at which time you can light a candle if you brought one and leave it on the altar.  The sixth song we will sing, “Pèp Ayisyen,” is a new song written by Manbo Maude for this occasion.

 Pèp ayisyen, ann nou met’ tèt ansanm o.
Pitit peyi nou malad, epi yo mouri.
Pèp ayisyen, ann nou met’ tèt ansanm o.
Pitit peyi nou malad, epi yo mouri.
Se pa kriye ki leve lamò,
Pawol anpil p ap leve lamò atò!
Mare vant nou, mare ren nou
Pou nou ka wè ki sa n ap fè pou yo.

People of Haiti, let us put our heads together.
Our countrymen are sick, they are dying.
People of Haiti, let us put our heads together.
Our countrymen are sick, they are dying.
Crying won’t raise the dead,
A lot of talking won’t raise the dead at all!
Get ready to work [lit. “Tie our stomachs and backs”]
So we can figure out how to help them.


1 Comment

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One response to “In memoriam

  1. What a beautiful new song. Mesi anpil pou ou.

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