Haiti – death care in the catastrophe

15 Jan

A CNN “developing story” today described the cemetery and funeral crisis that is accompanying the Haiti disaster. Just two days after the earthquake there is insufficient space in cemeteries to bury the casualties, no time for real funerals, and not even enough coffins to put the bodies in. The desperation on the faces of survivors waiting in long lines to get their loved one’s body into the cemetery, who have to bribe officials for even the most wretched space to bury the body or who are forced to bury them unmarked in a field or watch them disappear in a mass cremation – this is heart-wrenching even beyond the tragedy of the deaths themselves. For not only are loved ones suddenly dead, there is not even the possibility of a dignified and loving farewell for them.

These tragic images should not only awaken our compassion – they should also be reminders that death is not always as manageable as we experience in our relatively peaceful and organized world. The “thronging in the lifeboats” has become completely foreign to us in our protected world. But by watching what happens in Haiti, we can get a preview of how it will be when a similar catastrophe strikes one of our cities. For we are naive if we think that we will be spared similar trials – in the long term, nature makes no favourites.

What happens to death care during a catastrophe?
"Thronging in the life-raft" - what happens to death care in catastrophes?

We are equally naive if we think we will be able to manage our catastrophes much better. Sure, we have far superior infrastructures and disaster responses. But when the earth shakes violently enough, or when the wind blows strongly enough, we will be in the position of the Haitians today.  Then not only will our life-infrastructure be handicapped, but that which takes care of death will be equally overwhelmed.

When a society is unprepared, then when the worst comes, which it always does in the end, it must scramble desperately to deal with the practical and spiritual consequences.

Like in Haiti, a similar disaster in San Francisco or New York or London or even a smaller metropolis will create an acute burial space crisis. Farmers’ fields, parks and wildlands near the cities will be appropriated for burials. If the disaster is bad enough, anonymous mass cremation will be the only choice to avoid contagions. There will be no time for meaningful funerals, for erecting a worthy memorial, perhaps even for recording where a body has been laid to rest.

What we see in Haiti should be a wake-up call to us to prepare ourselves now, as best we can, to deal with the mortalities of catastrophes. So that when they come, we can treat our dead in a half-way decent manner.

By locating and preparing enough suitable land for cemeteries in advance, we can avoid a good part of the indignity and the unnecessary additional tragedy that results when death care is forced to become a desperate, purely hygienic matter. By prepared the right kind of land, we can also save precious farmland and wilderness from being used for burials.

Hopefully we will be spared these mass catastrophes – but even then, such preparation can only help us for the inevitable rise in deaths which demographics is bringing our way in the next 3 or 4 decades.

All the more reason to move forward with Perpetua’s Garden now.


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