Category Archives: death rituals in Haitian art

A Great Haitian Humanitarian Has Died

June 21, 2009

The Reverend Gerard Jean-Juste probably did more for Haitian refugees in South Florida and, by extension, all of the country in his lifetime, than anyone else. A Catholic priest and a humanitarian, he defended the rights of this beleaguered minority and lived to see the growth of Haitian political power in Miami as more and more Haitians won elective office. So with these facts in mind, it is no wonder that when he died on March 27th following complications from a stroke and respiratory problems, people came by the thousands to mourn his passing.

According to a timeline in the Miami Herald, Jean-Juste moved to Miami in 1978 and was hired as the director of the Haitian Refugee Center. Eventually he had his own grass roots political watchdog group called Veye Yo. He returned to Haiti in 1991 for the inauguration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president in Haiti’s history. But arrests on the basis of weapons possession and murder and suspension from his parisih duties at St. Claire Catholic Church were signs that he could be a divisive figure at a time when taking a stand in Haiti can have dire consequences. Released from jail, he continued to officiate mass and feed neighborhood children. All the charges against him were eventually dropped.

Last year he received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of San Francisco in recognition of his advocacy work. It was the generous, caring Jean-Juste that drew 3,000 people inside Miami’s Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church in early June, while thousands more stood outside in the rain. The Haitian community has lost an important man, an eloquent spokesman for his people, and a purveyor of good in the world.

–Candice Russell


May 17, 2009

Yesterday was the funeral in Haiti for the father of my good friend, Lange Rosner. The ceremonies attendant to all aspects of life, including death, are important to Haitians. They are closer to these rituals than many other cultures in the Western hemisphere and are stronger for them, in my opinion. The funeral procession, the burial, even the screaming and crying as the coffin is lowered into the ground are part of the plan, a recipe for grieving and what Americans speciously dub “closure.”

Last weekend was the ten-year anniversary of the death of my good friend, Dr. Carlos Jara. A psychiatrist and diplomat from Chile, he came to Haiti in the late 1980s and established a solid reputation as one of the island’s foremost art dealers. To his credit, he befriended many of the artists whose work he loved. Carlos accompanied renowned Saint Soleil painter Stivenson Magloire to a Port-au-Prince cemetery late one night and performed a ritual of his own making to relieve Magloire of what he thought was an evil spell put on him by his enemies. When Magloire’s mother, Saint Soleil painter Louisiane Saint Fleurant, lay sick and near death in a rural hospital, it was Carlos who brought her the medicine she needed to make a full recovery.

The loss of Carlos was not only a terrible blow to the art world but to his beloved wife, Emeraude Michel Jara, their sons Jorgen and Sergio and Yanne, with whom she was pregnant when Carlos suffered his fatal heart attack at age 54 on May 9, 1999. No one was better at finding and encouraging the great artists of Haiti. When we made a visit to Andre Pierre (also now deceased) in Croix-des-Missions, Carlos insisted we stop at a bakery in Petionville to get the artist a special cake, which was happily received. A wonderful host, a bon vivant and raconteur, Carlos was intelligent, funny and impeccable in the way he conducted business.

His own funeral involved three speakers besides the preacher at the church in Delmas — his oldest son Carlitos, his pregnant wife Emeraude, and myself. A one-eyed cat walked in front of me as I took the stage, which other people mentioned to me at the graveside. There was a small orchestra of young people playing somber classical music and quiet sobbing. It was a beautiful ceremony, followed by a trek to the cemetery for the wealthy near Petionville. As the coffin was lowered into a deep hole and covered with wet cement, it was nearly silent but the air was electrically charged with grief. Carlos died way too soon and all too suddenly. No one was prepared for this tragedy.

In keeping with the Haitians’ reverence for passed-away ancestors and death rituals, death is part of the subject matter used by some of the country’s best artists. Look no further than Wilson Bigaud’s painting “Zombie Being Led from the Cemetery,” incorporating a widely-held myth that the dead can rise again. It was inspired by a similar painting originated by Hector Hyppolite, the grandfather of the current Haitian art renaissance launched in the 1940s. Just like the Mexicans, whose Day of the Dead corresponds with the Haitians’ Guede ceremonies around November 1, the Haitians understand that death is part of life, less to be feared than incorporated into existence.

–Candice Russell