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Mass graves saved Venice but are they right for Haiti?

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Sat, January 16th, 2010

Dead bodies from Haiti’s earthquake are being piled into dump trucks and unloaded in mass graves outside Port-au-Prince.

Victims of the bubonic plague exhibit the classic buboes that gave the disease its name. Many who died from plague were buried in mass graves that are eerily similar to those being dug right now on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince for victims of the Haiti earthquake.

Bubonic plague victims exhibit the classic “buboes” that gave the disease its name. Many who died from plague were buried in mass graves that are disturbingly similar to those being dug right now outside Port-au-Prince for victims of the Haiti earthquake.

This burial method dates back to the Middle Ages but according to the field manual, Management of dead bodies after disasters, produced by the International Committee of the Red Cross, burying bodies in mass graves can be traumatizing for survivors and lead to legal troubles later on, as family members seek to retrieve loved ones. The manual also notes an important misconception, one still being posited by some newscasters in Haiti: “The bodies of people who have died in a disaster do not cause epidemics…In most cases, those who have survived are more likely to be spreading diseases.”

It was fear of disease that led to some of the largest mass graves in history, those dug across Europe during the Bubonic Plague. A particularly virulent outbreak, called the Black Death, killed one-quarter to one-half of the European population in the mid-14th century. Flea-infested rats are believed to have spread the plague from the Gobi Desert to the Crimea, Constantinople and eventually all of Europe. Bouts of plague continued to erupt in the centuries to follow, with one of the last ones occurring in London, in 1665. In The Decameron, a bloody chronicle of the plague in 14th century Florence, Giovanni Boccaccio describes a scene similar to those presently being witnessed throughout Port-au-Prince.

Dead bodies filled every corner. Most of them were treated in the same manner by the survivors, who were more concerned to get rid of their rotting bodies than moved by charity towards the dead. With the aid of porters, if they could get them, they carried the bodies out of the houses and laid them at the door; where every morning quantities of the dead might be seen. They then were laid on biers or, as these were often lacking, on tables.

Such was the multitude of corpses brought to the churches every day and almost every hour that there was not enough consecrated ground to give them burial, especially since they wanted to bury each person in the family grave, according to the old custom. Although the cemeteries were full they were forced to dig huge trenches, where they buried the bodies by hundreds. Here they stowed them away like bales in the hold of a ship and covered them with a little earth, until the whole trench was full.”

A mass grave recently discovered on a small island in the Venetian Lagoon held over 1,500 plague victims. During the late 15th century, the island, Lazzaretto Vecchio, served as a lazaret, a place where the sick were quarantined to help stem the spread of plague. Researchers believe this practice may have helped Venice recover more quickly from the devastating plague outbreaks of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Perhaps what is most difficult about watching bulldozers gather corpses along the streets of Port-au-Prince is that one knows the bodies will be dumped without ceremony, and without lament. The family and friends who would typically sing and cry are often unaware their loved ones are even dead. They may be dead themselves. It is a scene disturbingly similar to one that occurred in London during the Great Plague of 1665, described by Daniel Defoe in A Journal of the Plague Year.

“This was a mournful scene indeed, and affected me almost as much as the rest…The cart had in it sixteen or seventeen bodies; some were wrapt up in linen sheets, some in rags, some little other than naked, or so loose that what covering they had fell from them in the shooting out of the cart, and they fell quite naked among the rest; but the matter was not much to them, or the indecency much to any one else, seeing they were all dead, and were to be huddled together into the common grave of mankind, as we may call it, for here was no difference made, but poor and rich went together; there was no other way of burials, neither was it possible there should, for coffins were not to be had for the prodigious numbers that fell in such a calamity as this.”

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