The corporal work of mercy of burying the dead in Haiti

In modern-day first-world America, it can be difficult to understand why burying the dead is considered a corporal work of mercy, rather than just something that is done automatically upon the death of a loved one.

When someone passes from this life to the next, we go through the motions: a wake, a funeral, a burial, perhaps a cremation. From time to time, we visit the cemetery, say a prayer and leave flowers at the base of a headstone. I’m not saying all of this necessarily is easy; rather, that it’s normal.   

Travel to impoverished Haiti, though, where people die routinely of fevers and during childbirth, and suddenly it’s apparent why burying the dead is considered to be one of the most merciful acts our Faith commands of us. In Haiti, burials are not automatic. In Haiti, they are not routine. In Haiti, the task of burying the dead is a grisly ministry; it’s an act of compassionate love; it’s an act of pure faith that surely — surely — after life so miserable and death so tragic that there must be something better to come.

In early December, The New York Times published an in-depth piece on a group of young men who are part of the St. Luke Foundation for Haiti — founded in 2000 by American Passionist Father Rick Frechette — who have taken it upon themselves to bury more than 30,000 abandoned or unclaimed bodies in the past 10 years. The impoverished of the area simply don’t have the money to pay for a proper burial. It is a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching piece of writing that illustrates the gruesome task in painful detail. And it will haunt you. 

“For the past decade, the team has come to collect the abandoned dead and bury them in a distant cemetery,” writes Catherine Porter, the Times reporter. “There aren’t any headstones. But St. Luke is trying to offer a modicum of dignity — a funeral pall, a coffin, a grave, some uplifting hymns and solemn prayers. Before the burial team stepped in, the jumbled bodies were dumped in the desert, into giant pits or just out in the open.”

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Raphaël Louigene, who leads the team, tells Porter: “They didn’t have a chance. They spent their lives in misery, they died in misery.” The group collects the dead every few weeks, with the number ranging from 24 to more than 100.

The significance of burying the dead comes straight from Scripture, when Joseph of Arimathea, accompanied by the women of Galilee, buries the abandoned body of Jesus (see Lk 23:50-56). But the men of the St. Luke Foundation illustrate the impact the act can have today. As much as it’s a story of sorrow, it’s a story of hope.

During the recent Year of Mercy, we were reminded of the command to “be merciful — even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). The men of St. Luke Foundation — the buriers of the dead — have heard and are obeying. Kudos to Porter and the Times for bringing them into the light.

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