Friday, Jan. 29, 2010

Among Haiti's Innumerable Dead, A Coffinmaker Recession

Only in the world turned upside down that is postquake Haiti is this possible: Pierre Josef, a coffinmaker in Port-au-Prince's Carrefour neighborhood, worries he may have to close his business.

It's not because he lost a workshop or an office on Jan. 12 — he works in a yard, under the shade of some trees, next to a small school. (Yes, prequake Haiti could be surreal too.) Nor is he lacking for workmen or supplies of timber. The problem, he tells me mournfully, is that "there are no customers."

The quake may have killed upwards of 200,000 people, but demand for Josef's coffins is at an all-time low. At full tilt, his yard can produce 10 caskets a day, from the simple wood-and-not-much-else boxes that he sells for $250 to the glossy, spray-painted and velvet-lined numbers that go for $1,000. But since the quake, Josef has been selling just two or three coffins a day.

The reasons abound: families of the dead have lost everything and simply can't afford a funeral; entire households have been wiped out, leaving nobody to bury them; bodies have been so thoroughly crushed in the rubble that they simply cannot be found. "People are lying dead in the house across [from] my own home," Josef says. "And one of these days, a bulldozer will come and remove all the rubble and take them away, along with the bodies."

Also, he has competition: the Haitian government is interring tens of thousands of bodies in mass graves outside the city. When Josef learns I visited one such site the previous day, he shakes his head and allows himself a little bit of black humor: "My customers are buried there."

I notice that the two caskets under construction are from his premium line. He says that of course, "the only people who can afford a burial in such times are the rich." Even when poor families do possess the bodies of their loved ones — like those who died from injuries after the quake — it is not uncommon for them to leave them on street corners to be collected by the government's dump trucks and taken to the mass graves. I've driven past several of these abandoned corpses; many are left deliberately uncovered, lest they be mistaken for a pile of trash and ignored by the truck drivers.

But two coffins a day, however pricey, won't sustain Josef's business. His only hope is a repeat of what happened after the hurricanes of 2008. Then, money from relatives living abroad began to reach the hands of survivors just in time for the poststorm wave of deaths, mainly from disease and complications from injuries. Those killed in the second wave got proper burials, complete with coffins.

If he can stay in business long enough, Josef may not have to look too far for customers. In the compound of the school next to his yard, more than 400 quake survivors huddle in tents or sleep in the open. Many have injuries. The rainy season begins in a few weeks, and that's bound to bring a fresh hell of disease and death. "Some of them are sure to die," says Josef, jerking his head back in the direction of the tents. "And there are camps like this all over the city."