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Dignity: the scarcest commodity in Haiti

Business is brisk in the capital’s main cemetery

To hell in a handcart. That's what's happening to the dead at the Grande Cemetiere de Port-au-Prince, a few blocks from the Presidential Palace, where funeral parties spent yesterday carrying makeshift coffin after makeshift coffin past decaying bodies that were lying by tombs, being casually pecked by chickens in the afternoon sunshine.

Every few minutes, another group of mourners arrived at the gates of central Haiti's most prominent burial ground, seeking to give loved ones a dignified burial. But dignity is a scarce commodity when half-open caskets, and corpses wrapped in rags and bloody clothes, litter the paths that lead around the 400-square-yard compound.

A crew of armed guards stood at the gate, making sure new arrivals at the cemetery were entitled to use one of the family tombs which fill it, and had paid the US $5 burial fee. A gatekeeper checked off their names against a list, which revealed that in the past three days, some 210 fresh corpses have been deposited there.

The real figure is far higher, though, since scores of dead people have been illegally dumped, their relations too impoverished to pay the fee. They now lie abandoned, and rotting. Some of them are in half open coffins; others are wrapped in rags that are now covered in swarms of flies. The really bad ones were left in the clothes they died in.

“Dumping is out of hand. That's why we've had to put guards here,” said Cherie Bigard, who is manning the gate on behalf of the local Mayor's office. “People don't have money to pay, so are just leaving them. So we need to stop more arriving. This is supposed to be a cemetery, with tombs, not an outdoor grave."

Bigard estimated that 150 “illegal” bodies were simply rotting in the sunshine in the heavily damaged graveyard. Walking through the gate, it was easy to believe him. I watched appalled as three cockerels scratched among a pile of six now-bloated corpses, and pecked at the entrails of one of the deceased, a middle-aged man.

Just behind me, a party of eight walked in, carrying a coffin that had been made from plastic, with a lid that kept falling off. They were followed by a pick-up truck bearing a body wrapped in a white sheet. It ran over a dismembered foot, before pausing next to a tomb whose entrance was blocked by a pile of nine bodies. Their skin was falling off, revealing orange fatty flesh underneath.

This is the business of death, and it is utterly foul. The smell? I won't even try to describe it. Once you get a whiff, it stays with you for hours. It's one reason why the people of Port-au-Prince have begun smearing toothpaste on their upper lips, if they are unable to get hold of a surgical mask.

As you walk up the path to the centre of the cemetery, there's a fresh piece of awfulness every few yards. A handcart that was driven fifty yards in was simply left standing, containing six bodies, of men and women. One was wearing a black armband; another had his trousers round his ankles. Flies swarmed around his bowels.

Several tombs appeared to have been smashed open with sledgehammers, so new bodies could be laid inside. One contained a damaged coffin and a bunch of plastic flowers. A sign in spray paint above it said “reparation,” signifying, it seemed, that it had been left there as part of some awful, obscure act of revenge.

Outside the broken tomb, a truck stopped. A girl of 14 was under a white sheet in the back. The men inside said they were planning to bury her there, and close the entrance to the broken tomb with breeze blocks lying next to it. First, though, they had to find money to pay for it. “We need five dollars,” they said.

You might wonder why people would bring their dead to a place this awful. But the simple truth is that they have no alternative, except to leave them to rot in the street - where they will eventually be picked up and dumped in mass graves on the outskirts of town.

One mourner, Jean Pierre Alcindor, said the Grand Cemetiere was the only place left to take the bodies of his 63-year-old sister, Marie Eve, and 32-year-old niece, Sarah. They were buried in a family tomb that has been virtually demolished by Tuesday's quake.

“We'd left them for five days, and we couldn't leave them any longer,” he said. “This was our only option. My sister lives in the US, in Forest Hills, New York, and had come to visit family on holiday. We wanted to fly her home, but there was just no way. The airport is obviously completely blocked.

“Her children are devastated that it has come to this. But we can't leave her in the morgue any longer: there is no electricity, so it is not refrigerated, and most are so full that bodies are being left outside to decompose, just like they are in the rest of the streets.”

Alcindor was wearing a silver ring of a skull and crossbones, and carrying a pile of twigs, which he said he planned to lay in the tomb yesterday afternoon alongside Marie Eve and Sarah, according to a religious custom that pervades in Haitian culture which intermixes Catholic and Voodoo traditions.

Despite the grisly and chaotic scenes at the cemetery, death is one of the only industries that is still thriving in Haiti. For families of victims, the tragedy after the tragedy of their sudden deaths often comes when they visit morgues, where corruptible staff are charging “release fees” of several hundred dollars for the bodies of their loved ones

The shortage of coffins means that they are also changing hands at inflated prices. Yesterday, my interpreter, George, who has lost his niece and two cousins, said they were being asked for $400 to get their bodies out of the morgue. They don't have enough money for a proper coffin, so will attempt, like many other people whose handiwork is on display at the cemetery, to fashion a DIY one out of plywood.

On my way out of the Grand Cemetiere, a woman rushed past me and, sickened by what she had seen, vomited in the street. At the gates behind her was a quotation from a poem by Victor Hugo: “Je dis que le tombeau qui sur les morts se ferme / Ouvre le firmament; / Et que ce qu'ici-bas nous prenons pour le terme / Est le commencement.”

Loosely translated, it means that what we think of as death is often a beginning. And for Haiti, the problems really are only just beginning.