The Undertaking


by Graeme Wood

Matt Labash lands in the Dominican Republic and travels across the border to Haiti, from prosperity to penury.  “It’s as though God bisected the island of Hispaniola, and said, ‘This side gets the shortstops. This side gets the cholera.’”

In a profile of Rick Frechette -- priest, gravedigger, hostage negotiator -- Labash finds a place that has never been better than awful:

In Haiti, even before the quake, dead bodies were nothing more than background music -- as commonplace as they are unnoticed. If they didn’t end up in the stark death-cave that is the general hospital morgue, they were burned in the streets on the spot where they died (a pragmatic hygiene concern). The decency and sentimentality that a better-developed society affords are luxuries here. Father Rick and his men gather the bodies themselves, packing them into makeshift coffins fashioned from supermarket cardboard boxes. They then truck them outside the city, up a sun-bleached highway that runs alongside the Caribbean Sea, to the rolling wastelands of Titanyen, which translates from Creole as the “fields of less than nothing.” A New Orleans-style Haitian jazz-funeral band -- all horns and drums -- plays graveside. Father Rick, an irreverent sort, calls them “The Grateful Dead.” Then he and his men plant the cardboard coffins in large holes dug by their own gravediggers, endowing their cargo in death with a tiny modicum of the dignity that eluded them in life.

(Photo by Flickr user United Nations Development Programme under a Creative Commons license.)