Haitians Celebrate Day of the Dead

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - Cemeteries came to life across Haiti on Thursday as thousands of people dusted off family crypts and made jokes about mortality to honor the Vodou guardian of the dead.

Unlike past ceremonies, however, Haiti's grim economic circumstances prevented many from making the requisite offerings of food, alcohol and flowers to Bawon Samdi, the guardian of the dead in Voodoo or Vodou, as the religion is spelled in Haitian Creole.

``Nowadays, Haitians are too poor to celebrate the Days of the Dead as they should,'' said Vodou practitioner Jean-Marie Bien-Aime.

More than three out of five Haitians suffer from malnutrition. Average life expectancy is 53. At birth, a Haitian's chances of not living to 40 are 31.6 percent, the United Nations (news - web sites) reports.

Twenty years ago, Vodou practitioners would have offered the spirits sacrifices of goats, pigs and oxen.

On Thursday, a plate of rotten meat was left as an offering at the municipal cemetery in Port-au-Prince - an offering quickly gobbled up by a young woman who took it off a tomb.

Haitians celebrate All Saints' Day Nov. 1, but because most practice Vodou they also pay their respects to Bawon Samdi and Gede, the spirit of one of the uproarious, ill-mannered children of the Bawon. Festivities will continue at the cemeteries through Friday at sundown.

``Gede'' was the name of an African tribe that disappeared during the slave trade. The name was resurrected in Vodou to identify the tempermental spirit.

Under slavery, the bodies of slaves were buried without ceremony.

Haiti won its independence from slave-holding France in 1804 after a bloody 13-year struggle. Vodou was the ideological cement of those who founded the world's first black republic.

Flower sellers squatted outside the cemetery in the mud. ``Remember, You Are Dust'' is painted in huge letters above the cemetery entrance.

The stinging smell of rum lingered between the tombs. Scores of beggars rattled their cups or pulled on the sleeves of passersby's, because charity is a duty on the Days of the Dead.

``Jesus will return,'' cried a street preacher, a member of one of Haiti's many Protestant sects, in a vain attempt to dampen the festivity.

Two-thirds of Haiti's 8.2 million population observe the Catholic and Vodou faiths, which are often practiced in tandem. One-third are Protestants.