Rituals, Behaviors, and Practices Associated with Death and Dying
Haitians who adhere to Vodou do not consider death to be the end of life. They do believe in an afterlife. Followers of Vodoun believe that each person has a soul that has both a gros bon ange (large soul or universal life force), and a ti bon ange (little soul or the individual soul or essence.)
When one dies, the soul essence hovers near the corpse for seven to nine days. During this period, the ti bon ange is vulnerable and can be captured and made into a "spiritual zombie" by a sorcerer. Provided the soul is not captured, the priest or priestess performs a ritual called Nine Night* to sever the soul from the body so the soul may live in the dark waters for a year and a day. If this is not done, the ti bon ange may wander the earth and bring misfortune on others.
After a year and a day, relatives of the deceased perform the Rite of Reclamation** to raise the deceased person’s soul essence and put it in a clay jar known as a govi. The belief that each person’s life experiences can be passed on to the family or community compels Haitians to implore the spirit of the decease to temporarily possess a family member, priest (houngan), or priestess (mambo) to impart any final words of wisdom.
The clay jar may be placed in the houngan’s or mambo’s temple where the family may come to feed the spirit and treat it like a divine being. At other times, the houngan burns the jar in a ritual called boule zen. This releases the spirit to the land of the dead, where it should properly reside. Another way to elevate the ti-bon-ange is to break the jar and drop the pieces at a crossroad.
The ultimate purpose of death rituals in the Vodoun culture is to send the gros-bon-ange to Ginen, the cosmic community of ancestral spirits, where it will be worshipped by family members as a loa itself. Once the final ritual is done, the spirit is free to abide among the rocks and trees until rebirth. Sixteen incarnations later, spirits merge into the cosmic energy.
Here are some other common behaviors associated with death in the Haitian culture:
When death is impending, the entire family will gather, pray, cry, and use religious medallions or other spiritual artifacts. Relatives and friends expend considerable effort to be present when death is near.
Haitians prefer to die at home, but the hospital is also an acceptable choice.
The moment of death is marked by ritual wailing among family members, friends, and neighbors.
When a person dies, the oldest family member makes all the arrangements and notifies the family. The body is kept until the entire family can gather.
The last bath is usually given by a family member.
Funerals are important social events and involve several days of social interaction, including feasting and the consumption of rum.
Family members come from far away to sleep at the house, and friends and neighbors congregate in the yard.
Burial monuments and other mortuary rituals are often costly and elaborate. People are increasingly reluctant to be buried underground. They prefer to be interred above ground in an elaborate multi-chambered tomb that may cost more than the house in which the individual lived while alive.
Since the body is thought to be necessary for resurrection, organ donation and cremation are not allowed. Autopsy is allowed only if the death occurred as a result of wrong doing or to confirm that the body is actually dead and not a zombie.
Like many Western Christian religions that use a figurative sacrifice to symbolize the consumption of flesh and blood, some Vodoun ceremonies include a literal sacrifice in which chickens, goats, doves, pigeons, and turtles are sacrificed to celebrate births, marriages, and deaths.
Vodou Beliefs about Afterlife
Practitioners of Vodou assume that the souls of all the deceased go to an abode beneath the waters. Concepts of reward and punishment in the afterlife are alien to Vodou.
In Vodou, the soul continues to live on earth and may be used in magic or it may be incarnated in a member of the dead person's family.
Communion with a god or goddess occurs in the context of possession. The gods sometimes work through a govi, and sometimes take over a living person. This activity is referred to as "mounting a horse" during which the person loses consciousness and the body becomes temporarily possessed by a loa. A special priest (houngan) or priestess (mambo) assists both in summoning the divinities and in helping them to leave at the termination of the possession.
The gros-bon-ange returns to the high solar regions from which its cosmic energy was first drawn; there, it joins the other loa and becomes a loa itself.
Each group of worshipers is independent and there is no central organization, religious leader, or set of dogmatic beliefs. Rituals and ceremonies vary depending upon family traditions, regional differences, and exposure to the practices of other cultures such as Catholicism, which is the official religion of Haiti.
Some Haitians believe that the dead live in close proximity to the loa, in a place called "Under the Water." Others hold that the dead have no special place after death.
Burial ceremonies vary according to local tradition and the status of the person. Some families do not express grief aloud until most of the deceased's possessions have been removed from the home. Persons who are knowledgeable in the funeral customs wash, dress, and place the body in a coffin. Mourners wear white clothing which represents death. A priest may be summoned to conduct the burial service. The burial usually takes place within 24 hours.
Westerners, or so-called logical people, might find Vodoun a strange and exotic mixture of spells, possessions, and rituals. Like any other religion, its purpose is to comfort people by giving them a common bond. Vodoun meshes surprisingly well with Catholicism, the official religion of Haiti. With a supreme being, saint-like spirits, belief in the afterlife and invisible spirits, along with the protection of patron saints, Voodoo isn't that different from traditional religions.
I utilized about 20 different sites to gather my information, but I’ve only listed the most credible sources in the list below. Most of these have similar information and contain very few contradictions to one another. The sites that I feel are most credible are the ones published by government or medical organizations and those that cite the sources used for their research.
http://ow.ly/v1wq This site has a long list of sources cited. Haitians had actually commented on the article claiming its accuracy and thanking the author for posting such an informative piece.
http://ow.ly/v1wE Boston Medical site was funded by a grant from The Ford Foundation. The information is provided as a research resource, and does not represent promotion or medical endorsement on the part of either the Boston Healing Landscape Project , the Boston University School of Medicine, or The Ford Foundation.
http://www.near-death.com/religion.html#rel15 Had a huge resource of information about the beliefs of different cultures regarding death, dying, and afterlife.
http://www.religioustolerance.org/Vodou.htm provides a list of 12 Internet resources used to compile the information and had links to more resources.
Cultural Competency, Haitian Immigrants, and Rural Sussex County, Delaware at http://tinyurl.com/ygnp73d is published to help address the challenges of providing health care to differing cultures.
http://whisperingwood.homestead.com/Voudon.html This site repeated much of what I found on other sites, but it gave insight to which I could verify information due to my current knowledge of Paganism.
http://www.widdershins.org/vol2iss2/l9605.htm this site gave a list of resources used.
For more information, you might enjoy reading the complete book More Than Meets the Eye True Stories about Death, Dying, and Afterlife. Purchase on Amazon.com
* Nine-Nights is a funerary tradition practiced in the Caribbean (primarily Jamaica and Guyana). It is an extended wake that lasts for several days, with roots in African tradition. During this time, friends and family come together to the home of the deceased. They share their condolences and memories while singing hymns and eating food together. In the old days, the nights were calm and reserved for the most part - but that tradition has changed with the times. Today, these gatherings resemble parties much more than they resemble wakes (though this is not true for all “nine-nights”).
Nine-Nights are no longer a time to mourn but a time to celebrate since the loved one is no longer suffering in life. When friends come they do not come with just condolences they come with food, drink and music; this is after all a celebration. True to its name this celebration lasts nine nights and days with the ninth and final night being the night before the church service. On the ninth night the family prepares the food for all who come. As tradition has is on the ninth night it is believed that the spirit of the deceased passes through the party gathering food and saying goodbye before continuing on to its resting place. Out of all the nights this night is the most revered since it is the end of the celebration. Stories about the deceased and the fondest memories are shared, along with prayers. Games, such as Dominos, are played as well as singing hymns, which is also done on the other nights as well.
On the ninth night a table is set up under a tent with food for the loved one, though no one is allowed to eat from it before midnight because it is believed that this is the time that the spirit passes through. Along with the food are drinks, most often Jamaican rum with no less than 100 proof. The types of food on the table can vary from one celebration to the next, but typically fried fish and bammy are the main foods on the table. This time is very important to the family because it gives them time to celebrate the life of their loved one and to be able to say their goodbyes.
Traditionally on the ninth night of the deceased's death their bed and mattress are turned up against the wall, in order to encourage the spirit (Jamaican patois "duppy") to leave the house and enter the grave.Retirer d’en bas d’leau: Reclaiming Ancestors: Haitian Vodou
**In Haitian Vodou, Guinée is the ancestral home. The place of origin. The eternal dwelling of the lwa. Guinée is Africa. It is where the souls of the dead return to rest, the deep waters of the abyss. And it is the place from which the strength and blessings of the ancestors are repossessed for the benefit of their descendants in a ceremony known as retirer d’en bas d’leau. “A year and a day following the death of a person, the family undertakes to reclaim his soul from the waters of the abyss below the earth and to lodge it in a govi [a specially consecrated container] where it may henceforth be invoked and consulted in the event of illness or other difficulties and so may participate in all the decisions that normally unite the members of the family in counsel.”36 Anthropologist, initiate and scholar of Vodou Maya Deren describes the ritual, directed by a houngan (high priest) or manbo (high priestess) who shakes a consecrated rattle rhythmically, steadily, for a long time. Sometimes insistently, sometimes with a gentle, ringing murmur, the ritual leader uses the instrument and her voice to call les invisibles, the family dead, to the surface of the water.
This ceremony, in which the spirits of the deceased are coaxed with song back into active participation in the lives of their living family members, is a way of insuring that the blessings and help of ancestors are acknowledged and available to their kin. The spirits of the dead are asked to come and reside in special vessels where they can be kept close and cared for by their descendants. Once all the ceremonial rites have been completed, the reclaimed ancestors “are treated as tutelary spirits, a kind of minor loa, who look after their relations and who, in return for sacrifices offered them, attend to the prayers of kith and kin and respond to their appeals for advice or protection.”