PORT-AU-PRINCE -- In Haiti, funerals are as expensive as weddings, tombs often more elaborate than the homes of the living.
Yet thousands -- victims of Haiti's worst natural disaster -- are now being shoveled into mass graves.
On Sunday, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said that government workers -- road crews in ordinary times -- had collected and buried 70,000 bodies, all but 5,000 from the capital city, Port-au-Prince.
At first, they tried to identify the dead. Now they're merely counting them. They keep a running tally on sheets of paper as they scoop the corpses with loaders and deposit them in dump trucks, said Jude Celestin, head of the National Center of Equipment, the Haitian government's road construction company.
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Reluctant to give a final figure, the government thinks the toll could rise to 100,000; authorities have yet to make their way to areas within the capital and outside that suffered mass casualties.
"Until we get to the slums, the dense population, we won't know" the number exactly, Bellerive said.
Right after Tuesday's earthquake, those who could afford to bought pretty caskets, draped them with flowers and drove their dead to a crematory or family plots.
Those who couldn't afford to burned the bodies themselves.
Initially, the dead were wrapped tightly in pink and white sheets stripped from beds or salvaged from the rubble, and gingerly placed on sidewalks.
Now, relatives who might have spent days digging for their dead are letting workers haul them away.
The unceremonious disposals are generating criticism, but Bellerive defended them, saying that "people don't realize that we didn't know we had to collect 70,000 bodies in five days. . . . I believe no country would be prepared for that."
Celestin said his truck drivers initially took cameras and notebooks on their routes to help save the identities of the dead. But 1,000 bodies later, the system broke down because bystanders dumped corpses into the loaders.
The total "is way more than" 70,000, Celestin said. 'A LONG PROCESS'
Sixty government dump trucks and loaders with eight-man teams do the work, Celestin said.
"It's a long process. Step one, is they put the body into the loader. The loader then puts the body into the truck."
Celestin said his men are not professionals, just road builders doing their best.
Port-au-Prince Mayor Jean-Yves Jason said that after the earthquake, officials spent hours discussing how best to handle the dead.
Then the situation became even more urgent because "the bodies were beginning to decompose, to smell. We were facing a choice: leave them in the streets to rot where you would never be able to identify them, or leave them and risk making people sick. When you are in the midst of a disaster, saving the other people is the most important decision."
Jason said there are more than 150 "spontaneous" camps in his city alone. That doesn't take in those that have formed in Petionville, or other communities outside of the city of Port-au-Prince. Of the 65,000 bodies that were picked up just in his city, his staff had buried 7,530 bodies in Port-au-Prince's historic Fort Nacional cemetery, now beyond capacity. IN THE TOMBS
"The earthquake demolished a lot of tombs. So what we did is we broke into them to create mass graves, " he said. "It's not that we decided to break into them. It was the simplest solution for us to quickly remove the bodies from the streets."
Still, he said, "people are upset . . . because people have been bringing bodies from the slums and placing them on the side of streets."
Even finding a place to bury the bodies has not been easy. After burying 5,000 bodies at a landfill outside of the city in Titayen, the population living nearby protested and Celestin had to find another location. Making matters worse, two dump trucks stacked with bodies were on standby.
Eventually, the locals identified another location where a new mass grave could be dug. Now there is a new problem: After Celestin's employees cut out a temporary road to the site, residents are now dumping bodies along the dirt road, not even bothering to put them into the ground. IDENTIFICATION
Dr. Ciro Ugarte, regional advisor for the Pan American Health Organization, one of several agencies trying to identify the dead, said that many bodies will never be identified, in some cases because no one is there to identify them.
Some, he said, have been buried in temporary trenches "in bags with some type of identification and physical characteristics."
They can be exhumed later. But those bulldozed into mass graves will remain where they are, anonymously.
More body bags "would be a good thing, " he said. "We don't know how many will be found in small cities. We've only been able to cover 60 percent of the affected area, "
Ian Ridley, director of humanitarian programming for World Vision International, a global aid agency, said that "the best-case scenario is that we get a digital photo or DNA for later identification, " which helped after the tsunami of 2004.
"But in Haiti, there is no DNA database." DOING WHAT'S POSSIBLE
Haitians are hastily burying bodies because "it is not pleasant to have them around, for public health and psychological reasons. . . . The best thing is to organize memorial services for the relatives."
One small advantage, said Ridley: "Haiti is the kind of environment where people all know each other. You see people putting names up on message boards, and photos. Personal networks are very strong and effective in this situation and will ameliorate the tragedy, because [the bereaved] will know that someone saw their relative." ON THEIR OWN
On Sunday, residents poured gasoline and set a match to a body that relatives couldn't pull from a collapsed home. Neighbor Danilio Jean, 33, defended the burning for health reasons.
Berman Danis lost his wife, three children, a brother, sister, cousins and neighbors.
He managed to get the body of his wife and kids, saying "friends helped and I buried them as I could." About a mile southwest in Delmas 29, across the street from the Université Caraibe where bodies were dumped into piles before a Saturday pickup by government trucks, residents said they wished things could be different, but the reality calls for swift action.
"A pile of bodies were there, some of them family members collected, others were thrown away. They couldn't go to the morgue because they were in too bad a shape, " said Marie Gracieuse André, 64. "It's not good, but it's not possible to keep them. They are already rotten."
Gérard Derimon, 49, a carpenter, lost two nieces who lived with him after authorities didn't come fast enough to remove the bodies. His neighbors behind an industrial area in Delmas 19 decided to take matters into their own hands.
On Thursday, the community buried 14 of its own, including his nieces, in a field.
"We collected money between us, put them in boxes and buried them in a field in the area because we couldn't keep them, " he said.
Asked about people buried without being identified, Derimon said, "Even if we don't know them, we honor them as we can like brothers."