Miami’s Haitians rally around unclaimed bodies

Nearly two weeks after a smuggler’s boat capsized and the bodies of nine Haitian migrants were found floating off the coast of Florida, three remain unidentified. But the local Haitian community says they will not go unclaimed.

Fritz Gerald Duvigneaud and others want to see to it that all the victims have funerals, where people can remember their struggle.

“These people have been through so much,” said Duvigneaud, who owns a funeral home. “They deserve a proper burial.”

Churches are taking up collections to help with the burials. Haitian funeral homes are offering their services for free. Pastors are reaching out on radio to get family members to come forward.


“There is great emphasis on the dead -- that’s part of our culture as Haitians,” said the Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary at Notre Dame D’Haiti Catholic Church in Miami. “After death, the person deserves to be treated with dignity, and we value that. When someone is unclaimed it’s like shame to the family.”

Scores of migrants have died at sea trying to get here from Haiti. Sometimes they don’t have close relatives to claim them; sometimes family members are in the country illegally and too scared to come forward.

The smuggler’s boat capsized May 13 in rough waters 15 miles east of Boynton Beach. Sixteen people survived. Nine bodies were recovered.

The Palm Beach Medical Examiner’s Office is working with the Haitian Consulate, church leaders and families to identify the remaining three bodies.


Tony Mead, operations manager at the Medical Examiner’s Office, said people who were in the U.S. illegally would not be investigated if they came forward to claim a loved one.

If the office cannot determine the victims’ identities, the bodies eventually will be released to a funeral home that has a contract for indigent burials.

Roland Valeus of Miami suspects his cousin, Ciliona Estalice, is one of the three unidentified bodies.

Valeus showed an investigator a tiny photo he has of her.

The investigator couldn’t match it with the women in the morgue, but he showed Valeus photos of the dead.

“She’s there. She’s there. My cousin is there,” Valeus said.

His certainty wasn’t enough proof to release the body. The investigator advised him to get another photo, a larger one.

“I’m going to come back,” Valeus said. “I have to get her.”