Days after the magnitude 7 earthquake devastated the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, web sites posted photographs of thousands of victims of the earthquake piled into a mass grave. The bodies were collected from the city’s streets, put into dump trucks and driven to the mass burial sites. News reports were prefaced with disclaimers warning viewers that the images they were about to see were graphic and shocking.
The narratives were just as horrifying. Reporters told the story of dump trucks, like those commonly seen in this country entering and exiting construction sites, stopping to collect dead bodies, which are tossed into the back and later dumped out like sand or gravel into 100-foot-long, 20-foot deep rectangular mass graves. The bodies aren’t counted, no one takes pictures or looks for identification. In dealing with the dead following the 2004 tsunami in Asia, bodies were photographed before being buried so loved ones could at least have a chance to identify them. It is shocking that there is no effort being made to identify the bodies.
While DMORT teams could process the remains and help notify the next-of-kin, their offer for assistance was met with a “thanks, but no thanks.”
Five days after the Jan. 12 earthquake, it was reported that Haiti’s prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, said that the government had already disposed of 20,000 bodies in mass graves. According to one Haitian official, the lack of refrigeration capacity necessitated such a decision. The Haitian government said there was no choice. One doesn’t have to be a member of a DMORT team to realize that statement is not necessarily true.
I am not without understanding that yes, we are talking about an incalculable loss of life in a relatively small area in a poor country, where the climate will exacerbate decomposition and all that goes with it.
DMORT teams have procedures to identify and process remains in a relatively quick and efficient process. However the Haitian government probably believed it needed to move a lot faster than the DMORT teams will allow. Maybe processing this many bodies might have been too tall a task, but I still can’t get past the point that help was offered and it was refused.
Out of events of great significance come iconic images that are forever linked to the event. Unfortunately, the defining image for me from the Haiti earthquake is the photos of bodies strewn in the mass burial pit.
For those in Haiti who have already lost everything, there is one more loss they have to absorb — not knowing exactly what happened to a loved one. It is safe to assume that anyone missing since the earthquake probably didn’t make it. But those in the profession of caring for the dead, better than anyone, know the value of closure.
Edward J. Defort
Editor of the Memorial Business Journal