In any religion, whether it is Vodou, Catholicism, or Judaism, death is not an easy passage. No one willingly goes over to the Waters of Return, and those left behind often feel that there is little they can do, now that their dearly departed have gone before them. But the religion of Vodou provides for those left behind by offering a ceremony that is designed to help with the Dead crossing over into the Waters of Return, and which ensures that the Dead may be remembered well by those still living.
The Desounnen, literally "going down", refers to the rites of separation performed when someone has died. In Vodou theology, the Ti-Bon Ange (Little Good Angel) is the will of the person, which returns to stand before God and recount the life just lived. The Gros Bon Ange (Big Good Angel) is the animating force of the body. When the body dies, it must be properly separated from the body and given a chance to rest in the Immortal Waters of Return. There, it unites with the community of Ancestral Dead, and rests from it's earthly travails. One year and a day later, rites of reclamation (called Retire Mo Nan Dlo) call the Gros Bon Ange back up out of the waters and place it within a specially prepared container called a Govi. From this new "body" the Gros Bon Ange literally can participate with the community by giving advice, guidance and perspective from it's resting place within the ritually prepared govi. If protocol is properly followed the Gros Bon Ange can eventually become a Family Lwa, or can it be reincarnated in the form of Lwa, for succeeding generations to draw upon it's wisdom.
Desounnen is the rite and ritual reserved for the first part of the Vodou Death Rites (the second ceremony called Retire Mo Nan Dlo, reclaims the soul from the waters). Separating the Gros Bon Ange from the kor cadeave (the body) is a long and arduous working. It requires a long evening of prayer, songs and ritual gesture. During this working, the Met Tet, which has accompanied the dead through the deceased’s life, may choose to possess a family member or another person. Family members who have already passed into the Waters of Return may choose to come and speak through the medium of possession. All this is expected, desired and good, for it indicates that the dead have lived a righteous life, and that the Ancestors are in support of both their crossing and the work of the Desounnen.
Dessounen can be performed bedside, in hospice or in private. The location does not matter, only the intent of the work. Mambo was honored to perform this rite for her godmother last year. It was a cathartic action for all present.