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Dignity of a burial vanishes in rubble

For the moment, Louis Banatty lies in a stranger’s backyard, the Haitian earth shifting around him.

But as soon as she can, Chantal Banatty wants to bring him to Florida, where the once-controversial broadcaster, businessman and U.S. Marine veteran founded Miami’s Radio Creole in 1980.

“No box, no sheet, no nothing,” said Chantal, of Punta Gorda. “They dug a hole and buried him in the ground like that. ... He should not be rotting in dirt.”

Two weeks after the Jan. 12 earthquake, the solemn services that Haitians cherish remain as rare as an untroubled moment.

Among the few victims formally honored were Haitian Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot and Vicar Charles Benoit. About 2,000 mourners gathered Saturday for a two-hour ceremony at what’s left of Port-au-Prince’s regal cathedral to memorialize them — and cry for their ruined country.

But an estimated 150,000 of Haiti’s dead are moldering in the rubble and mass graves or falling prey to starving animals in the open, their fate an eternal mystery to loved ones.

And that, said Haiti scholar Ira Lowenthal, is profoundly disturbing in an ancestor-worshipping culture that melds Christian belief with ancient African traditions.

Haitians’ “job in life is to prolong [the] chain of succession,” Lowenthal said from his intact home in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Pétionville. Death rituals ‘‘give us dignity of our past. That’s what the Haitian family is about.

“When you break that chain and bury the dead without anybody knowing, it disrupts everything.”

Haitians save their entire lives to build tombs more elaborate than any structure they’ve occupied while living, Lowenthal said, adding, “It’s their final home.”

Luvie Netus, 76, attended a simple graveside service for her cousin’s husband, among the fortunate dead whose relatives have someplace to visit.

“Traditionally, as we are not animals, we have funerals,” she said. “Funerals are important to Haitians. We expect a coffin and a Mass.”

And a wake, flowers, music and time to mourn — unattainable luxuries in the daily struggle to survive.

Most Port-au-Prince churches have collapsed, caskets are hard to come by, morgues can’t maintain temperatures low enough to preserve corpses, and those entombed in rubble are too badly decomposed to salvage.

Some Haitians in Florida want nothing more than to bring their dead home, but fetching the living from Haiti is hard enough; the dead, even more so.

The roadblocks are both logistical and bureaucratic. Sending a body to the United States is a consular matter, and the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince is overwhelmed with more pressing needs.

Returning corpses must be tested for communicable diseases, preserved, properly contained, and accompanied by a death certificate, all nearly impossible in Haiti. They must clear customs, meeting Department of Homeland Security requirements.

And it’s expensive: about $4,000. The average Haitian lives on $3.60 a day.

Fred St. Arman, who owns the Pax-Villa funeral homes in Miami’s Little Haiti and Oakland Park, said that distraught potential clients call all day, begging for help.

“It’s painful to have people crying on the phone,” he said.

Before the quake, he’d bring up to 10 bodies a month.

Now 20 bodies remain at his Carrefour mortuary, where a generator keeps coolers running.

But with gas costing up to $13 a gallon, St. Arman isn’t sure how much longer he can preserve them.

The federal government won’t relax entry requirements and admit “anybody who is decomposed,” St. Arman said.

He and Mathelier are annoyed that officials don’t grasp how badly a country reeking of death needs body bags and preservatives.

That could change. A federal Department of Health and Human Services Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team has returned from Haiti with an assessment of conditions, and is working on its next move, said DMORT spokeswoman Gretchen Michael.

The department maintains a 1,200-person force of “intermittent’’ federal employees to staff the teams, 200 in Florida who are awaiting an assignment. Teams include forensic pathologists, anthropologists, dentists, crime-scene investigators, funeral directors, coroners, X-ray, lab technicians and other specialists.

“Repatriation of (deceased) U.S. citizens is our highest priority,” Michael said. ‘‘HHS, the Defense Department, the State Department, and the embassy are working to bring them back in the most dignified way possible.”

Port-au-Prince mortician Marc Arthur Alcero said a proper funeral can cost from $600-$3,000.

The family of Mikerlange and Judith Colas couldn’t afford even the lower amount, although relatives in Brooklyn offered to pay. Money wasn’t getting into Haiti until almost 12 days after the quake, and the sisters needed to be interred.

An uncle who owns a funeral home had a spare, cream-colored coffin big enough to hold both, and it took seven men to carry it through the main Port-au-Prince cemetery. There was no wake or church service. Relatives prepared the crypt.

Pastor Fritzner Jules of the First Haitian Baptist Church, North Miami, said his church in Haiti is “very formal,” and that funeral can last several hours, as loved one eulogize the dead.

The funeral has a dual function: to console and comfort the family, and to evangelize, he said.

“The funeral is more about the living than it is of the dead,” Jules said. “We cannot bring them back, but we need . . . to know at their last hour we did right by them.”

Thousands of Haitians will never know that.

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