Death in Haiti is in turns painful and exultant, drenched in loss and life-affirming. The cries of a woman who has lost her mother are nearly unbearable; the brass bands are triumphant to the point of being transcendent. This is the nature of funerals in Haiti (and by extension, New Orleans): full explosions of emotion, death bursting with life and intimations of afterlife.
The tone of these proceedings shines an uncomfortable light on staid Western practices: the solemn intonations, the hushed gatherers, the excision of “excess” emotion (“Can you step outside, you’re disturbing the family.”). The tone is incongruent with the words of resurrection. This despite all evidence that catharsis is achieved through expression, not suppression.
If you loved someone, and they died, wouldn’t you want to scream? If you believed in a joyous afterlife, wouldn’t you want to dance? Brass horns and car horns make for curious juxtapositions, until one realizes that both are part of the parade. Imagine such a thing in New York, where drivers would be honking for different reasons. But wouldn’t it be nice to picture a jazz band at one’s funeral? And a joker telling amusing stories, cutting through the tears?
Félix Blume spent a month in Port au Prince, recording the sounds of “15 dead, 15 funerals, 16 funeral processions, 1 procession with no dead, 5 churches, 1 cemetery, 1 wake.” The permission that was given by these families is testament to the Haitian spirit of generosity; to allow the sound artist access to the most intimate part of their grief, trusting that what was given would be honored. And honor it he does, condensing fifteen hours of recordings into a beautifully nuanced 40-minute collage.
The recording includes warm, comforting prayers, unison rituals, conversations, spontaneous singing, a mournful sax solo and an amusing confluence of “Marijuana, Rhum and Music around the Grave.” And why not? The loss is real, but so is the celebration. These people were loved, but in their earthly lives they made other people happy. What better gift than to be remembered with joy? Even the 1868 tune “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (words written in 1855) receives new skin, like that of the resurrected.
Blume’s work is both ethnographically important and religiously challenging. Could Western societies have gotten it wrong? Jesus told his disciples, “Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you” (John 16:22, NKJV). These funerals offer a foretaste of new life; the brass bands operate as harbingers. As Paul writes, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52, NKJV). The trumpets here pave way for the trumpets there. (Richard Allen)