Haitian Vodoun Perspectives on Death and Dying

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I chose to explore the culture of Haitians who practice Vodou, a religion also known as Voodoo, Vodun, Vodoun, Voudun, and Yoruba Orisha.  I have just returned from a vacation in the Caribbean (Punta Cana, Dominican Republic), which shares an island with Haiti. While there, I met a man from Haiti and was reminded of a bizarre experience I had in 1998 when I was ridden by an orisha (loa) during an inner-city Christian church service.
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Thus, I thought this would make an interesting subject for this assignment. To make things simpler in this essay, I will refer to this group simply as Vodou or Vodoun.

Introducing Vodou and Haitian Culture

Vodou is a Caribbean religion blended from African religions and Catholic Christianity. Long stereotyped by the outside world as “black magic,” Vodoun priests and priestesses are also diviners, healers, and religious leaders, who derive most of their income from healing the sick rather than from attacking targeted victims.

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Vodou comes from an African word for “spirit” and can be directly traced to the West African Yoruba people who lived in 18th and 19th century Dahomey. However, its African roots may go back 6,000 years. Today, Vodou is practiced most commonly in the country of Haiti and in the United States around New Orleans, New York, and in Florida. Today over 60 million people practice Vodou throughout the Caribbean and West Indies islands, as well as in North and South America, Africa, and Britain.

During days of slave trade, this religion fused with Catholic Christianity.
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Therefore, in this current century, children born into rural Haitian families are generally baptized into the Vodou religion as well as in the Catholic church.

Those who practice Vodou believe in a pantheon of gods who control and represent the laws and forces of the universe. In this pantheon, there is a Supreme Deity and the Loa-a large group of lesser deities equivalent to the saints of the Catholic Church. These gods protect people and give special favors through their representatives on earth which are the hougans (priests) and mambos (priestesses).

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The Loa (also Lwa or L’wha) are spirits somewhat like saints or angels in Christianity. They are intermediaries between the Creator and humanity. Unlike saints or angels, they are not simply prayed to; they are served. They are each distinct beings with their own personal likes and dislikes, distinct sacred rhythms, songs, dances, ritual symbols, and special modes of service.

Rituals, Behaviors, and Practices Associated with Death and Dying

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Haitians who adhere to Vodou do not consider death to be the end of life. They do believe in an afterlife. Followers of Vodoun believe that each person has a soul that has both a gros bon ange (large soul or universal life force), and a ti bon ange (little soul or the individual soul or essence.)

When one dies, the soul essence hovers near the corpse for seven to nine days. During this period, the ti bon ange is vulnerable and can be captured and made into a “spiritual zombie” by a sorcerer.
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Provided the soul is not captured, the priest or priestess performs a ritual called Nine Night to sever the soul from the body so the soul may live in the dark waters for a year and a day. If this is not done, the ti bon ange may wander the earth and bring misfortune on others.

After a year and a day, relatives of the deceased perform the Rite of Reclamation to raise the deceased person’s soul essence and put it in a clay jar known as a govi.
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The belief that each person’s life experiences can be passed on to the family or community compels Haitians to implore the spirit of the decease to temporarily possess a family member, priest (houngan), or priestess (mambo) to impart any final words of wisdom.

The clay jar may be placed in the houngan’s or mambo’s temple where the family may come to feed the spirit and treat it like a divine being.  At other times, the houngan burns the jar in a ritual called boule zen.
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This releases the spirit to the land of the dead, where it should properly reside. Another way to elevate the ti-bon-ange is to break the jar and drop the pieces at a crossroad.

The ultimate purpose of death rituals in the Vodoun culture is to send the gros-bon-ange to Ginen, the cosmic community of ancestral spirits, where it will be worshipped by family members as a loa itself.

Once the final ritual is done, the spirit is free to abide among the rocks and trees until rebirth. Sixteen incarnations later, spirits merge into the cosmic energy.

Here are some other common behaviors associated with death in the Haitian culture:

·        When death is impending, the entire family will gather, pray, cry, and use religious medallions or other spiritual artifacts. Relatives and friends expend considerable effort to be present when death is near.

·        Haitians prefer to die at home, but the hospital is also an acceptable choice.

·        The moment of death is marked by ritual wailing among family members, friends, and neighbors.

·        When a person dies, the oldest family member makes all the arrangements and notifies the family. The body is kept until the entire family can gather.

·        The last bath is usually given by a family member.

·        Funerals are important social events and involve several days of social interaction, including feasting and the consumption of rum.

·        Family members come from far away to sleep at the house, and friends and neighbors congregate in the yard.

·        Burial monuments and other mortuary rituals are often costly and elaborate. People are increasingly reluctant to be buried underground. They prefer to be interred above ground in an elaborate multi-chambered tomb that may cost more than the house in which the individual lived while alive.

·        Since the body is thought to be necessary for resurrection, organ donation and cremation are not allowed. Autopsy is allowed only if the death occurred as a result of wrong doing or to confirm that the body is actually dead and not a zombie.

Like many Western Christian religions that use a figurative sacrifice to symbolize the consumption of flesh and blood, some Vodoun ceremonies include a literal sacrifice in which chickens, goats, doves, pigeons, and turtles are sacrificed to celebrate births, marriages, and deaths.

Vodou Beliefs about Afterlife

Practitioners of Vodou assume that the souls of all the deceased go to an abode beneath the waters. Concepts of reward and punishment in the afterlife are alien to Vodou.

In Vodou, the soul continues to live on earth and may be used in magic or it may be incarnated in a member of the dead person’s family.

Communion with a god or goddess occurs in the context of possession. The gods sometimes work through a govi, and sometimes take over a living person. This activity is referred to as “mounting a horse” during which the person loses consciousness and the body becomes temporarily possessed by a loa. A special priest (houngan) or priestess (mambo) assists both in summoning the divinities and in helping them to leave at the termination of the possession.

The gros-bon-ange returns to the high solar regions from which its cosmic energy was first drawn; there, it joins the other loa and becomes a loa itself.

Variations

Each group of worshipers is independent and there is no central organization, religious leader, or set of dogmatic beliefs. Rituals and ceremonies vary depending upon family traditions, regional differences, and exposure to the practices of other cultures such as Catholicism, which is the official religion of Haiti.

Some Haitians believe that the dead live in close proximity to the loa, in a place called “Under the Water.” Others hold that the dead have no special place after death.

Burial ceremonies vary according to local tradition and the status of the person. Some families do not express grief aloud until most of the deceased’s possessions have been removed from the home. Persons who are knowledgeable in the funeral customs wash, dress, and place the body in a coffin. Mourners wear white clothing which represents death. A priest may be summoned to conduct the burial service. The burial usually takes place within 24 hours.

Conclusion

Westerners, or so-called logical people, might find Vodoun a strange and exotic mixture of spells, possessions, and rituals. Like any other religion, its purpose is to comfort people by giving them a common bond. Vodoun meshes surprisingly well with Catholicism, the official religion of Haiti. With a supreme being, saint-like spirits, belief in the afterlife and invisible spirits, along with the protection of patron saints, Voodoo isn’t that different from traditional religions. 

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Funeral Films: Grand Theft Parsons

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This story is so extraordinary that if it did not really happen, no one would believe it. It involves two men, a hearse, a dead rock star, five gallons of gasoline, and a promise.

Remember the influential country rock musician Gram Parsons? He played with Emmylou Harris, The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and The International Submarine Band. Parsons died in 1973 in a motel room near Joshua Tree National Monument from a morphine overdose at the age of 26.

The film Grand Theft Parsons (2003) is based on the true story of what happened to Parsons' body after he died. The movie illustrates certain issues that can be helpful for starting funeral or estate planning conversations.

Prior to his death, Parsons stated that he wanted his body cremated at Joshua Tree and his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there. His road manager Phil Kaufman (who also managed Parsons' drug and alcohol use as best he could) and he had a pact. Whoever died first, the other would take the body to Joshua Tree and "set his spirit free," that is, set the body on fire.

Taking a Body from a Hospital

At the beginning of the film, Kaufman (played by Johnny Knoxville) tries to obtain Parson's body from the small, remote hospital near Joshua Tree. The nurse says as he's not a physician or close relative, he has no rights to access the body. He tries to steal the body from the hospital, unsuccessfully.

Parsons' body goes to the Los Angeles International Airport for shipment to New Orleans for burial. Parsons' stepfather arranged for a private ceremony, neglecting to invite any music industry friends.

In the film, Kaufman hires a hippie with a psychedelic hearse to retrieve the body from the airport and bribes the air cargo office clerk to obtain Parson's body.

Once at Joshua Tree, Kaufman attempts to cremate Parsons by pouring five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin and throwing a lit cigarette inside – resulting in an intense fireball. That part of the film stays pretty close to the true story.

What Makes a Will?

The movie adds snarky ex-girlfriend Barbara Mansfield (played by Christina Applegate). She tries to cash in on Parson's money and earthly holdings using a handwritten note on the back of a flyer advertisement. She says it's his Will, but there is no notarization or anything that would make it official.

The note says: "To what it may concern: I would like it to be known that it is my wish to leave Barbara Mansfield my assets and belongings in the event of my death. Signed, Gram Parsons."

Kaufman tells her that's not a Will. She says it's a signed promise from Gram to leave her all of his things. Parsons was married to another woman at the time.

Using this note, she tries to obtain Parson's guitar and music masters from Kaufman. She also tries to get money from the bank. The banker tells her they have rules, the piece of paper is invalid, and they would at least need a death certificate for her to prove that he is actually dead. She unsuccessfully tries to get a death certificate from the county registrar.

Outside of the legality of setting a body on fire in a national monument, Grand Theft Parsons opens the door to discussing the following points:

  • A hand-written note does not make an acceptable Will, no matter how hard a desperate girlfriendists it does. Get an estate attorney who knows what actually makes a legal will valid.
  • Hospitals will not release bodies to "close friends," be they road managers or life partners without power-of-attorney proof. In fact, those who want to do their own home death care for a family member may have a difficult time getting a body released to next-of-kin.
  • Bribing an air cargo clerk has got to be breaking some kind of law, but this film is set in 1973, way before September 11 security improvements at airports took effect. Only "Known Shippers" can now handle dead bodies when it comes to air cargo. You can not just drive a psychedelic hearse up to the air cargo office anymore. Sigh.

By the way, in the true story, police chased Kaufman and his friend after setting the body on fire, but the pair got away. They were arrested several days later. Since there was no law against stealing a dead body, they were only fined $ 750 for stealing the coffin and were not prosecuted for leaving 35 pounds of Parsons' charred remains in the desert.

Grand Theft Parsons is a fun film with a few life-and-death lessons sprinkled into the comedy. It can be rented on DVD through Netflix and purchased on Amazon.com (as available). Rated PG-13 for drug references and some language.

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NBA West – Wild, Wild, Wild

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The NBA West is as competitive as it has ever been. .600 NBA teams could be out of the NBA Playoffs before even getting in. Some of the best players in the world stay in the NBA West, but only one team can explode through to play for an NBA Title.

The NBA West will be a huge mountain to scale for any NBA Team looking to go all the way. Whichever NBA team raises, they will have earned their trip to the NBA Finals through blood, sweat and a bit of luck. Whichever NBA West team wins, they will need to stay very healthy. Yao Ming Has already taken the Houston Rockets down with his injury.

On paper, there are several teams that look great. The New Orleans Hornets, Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks all look ready and willing to mix it up in the NBA Playoffs. If the NBA Playoffs have taught us anything, it is that experience and the best players usually survive to play deep into Spring. These three teams have yet to prove they have the chops to withstand the heat.

For me, it will come down to the big-three, the real big-three, in the NBA West. The Los Angeles Lakers have greeted and have come on very strong this season. Powered by Kobe Bryant's run for his first NBA MVP award, along with the addition of Pau Gasol, has the supercharged the Los Angeles Lakers near the top of the NBA West. Phil Jackson has done a masterful job at the helm, keeping egos in check, and having players buy into his system. All they have been doing is winning, and winning.

The San Antonio Spurs are the defending Champions. Like the Indianapolis Colts, who were defending champions in the NFL, all they do is go about their business, factory-like, and win as well. Tim Duncan again leads a pack that is looking to repeat for the first time in their dynamic, dynastic run.

Tony Parker will need to have a full strength if the San Antonio Spurs are primed to make a serious run at the NBA Title. Greg Popovich is, as usual, also doing a great job with the San Antonio Spurs. He is the most underrated, underappreciated Coach in all of sports, and will be destined for the hall-of-fame one day.

The Phoenix Suns, with the addition of Shaquille O'Neal, are in the hunt for the best record of the NBA West. Every NBA game is critical, as one loss can move a team down the standing several slots. The addition of Shaquille O'Neal has been the most intriguing move of the NBA Season, as the Phoenix Suns have gone all in, pushing all chips to the middle of the table in hopes of scoring an NBA Title, much like Shaquille O'Neal helped the Miami Heat and Pat Riley do in Miami.

The Phoenix Suns are old, and this is their window of opportunity. Steve Nash, Grant Hill and O'Neal are in the twilight of their careers, and this is the last go-round for all, with maybe this and 1-2 more years with the core group at NBA Championship capacity. The need will be for Shaquille O'Neal to stay healthy, and be able to give the Suns 25 great minutes per play game. This, maybe, can hold off Tim Duncan and the others.

It takes time for a presence like Shaquille O'Neal to mesh with Amare Stoudemire, Nash and company. Is there enough time? Probably, provided the health of Shaq contains.

Right now, it looks like the threesome of the San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers have the best shot of breaking out of the NBA West. If another team from the NBA West breaks through to the NBA Western Conference Finals I would be surprised. I still have to go with my pick back in November, the San Antonio Spurs to break through the NBA West and beat the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, in 6 tough games.

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Crime in America – The Most Dangerous Cities and States

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According to the most recently compiled crime reports and analyzed statistics (based on 2008 records), the three most dangerous cities in America are not particularly surprising.

New Orleans, Louisiana. There is little wonder that this city takes the number one most-dangerous spot, considering the social upheaval that ensued after Hurricane Katrina. Still in the lengthy throws of recovery, it's illegally that crime stats will drop any time soon in this devastated urban environment.

Detroit, Michigan. Poverty has overwhelmed Detroit following the closure of so many auto industry plants and other related businesses that were for so long the center of the area's economy. Desperation has a way of making people turn on each other. Violent crime, especially rape, armed robbery and assaults were through the roof in '08.

Gary, Indiana. Gary's drop to the number three spot is something of an accomplishment. They held the infamous number one spot for several years running. Burglary has always been high in this Indiana town, but rape statistics are especially ridiculous. I'd surmise that it would be unwince for any woman to walk down the streets of Gary without a loaded gun, a body guard, locked chastity belt and a pack of wolf hybrids.

The rest of the top ten most dangerous cities are: North Charleston South Carolina, Richmond California, Birmingham Alabama, Flint Michigan, Oakland California – which has been in the top three on numerous occasions, St.. Louis Missouri, and Camden New Jersey.

The three most unsafe states include Louisiana at the top of the list. While New Orleans was named the most dangerous city in the US, there are other Louisiana locales that do not beckon visitors with any promise of security. No doubt Louisiana tourism will not be on the rise anytime soon.

Nevada comes in second to Louisiana, though a distant second. Some of the smaller out of the way towns are not too seedy, but Las Vegas is always a hotbed of crime. Reno has its fair share of trouble as well. The state, with legal gambling and prostitution, is pretty much begging for an unsavory culture.

South Carolina takes the number three spot of the most dangerous states in the country, due to its very high number of reported attacks and car thefts. Other recorded crimes, however, are relatively low in comparison to other states in the top ten, which include; New Mexico, Florida, Tennessee, Alaska, Arizona, Michigan and Maryland.

No matter where you live, whether it's one of the most at-risk cities or a small, quiet town, it's always important to be aware of who and what is around you. Use common sense when going out (is it really necessary to be outside at 1:00 in the morning?) And when at home, always lock up your doors and windows.

Installing a reliable home security system can help keep you safe, and monitoring services elevate your personal protection even further. Crime can happen anywhere, anytime. Preparation and awareness can be key weapons to keep you from becoming a victim.

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