Ebola Outbreak: Burying the Dead with Dignity

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The rituals of death I experienced when my grandfather passed away a few years ago—the funeral, the church service, the burial, the visits, the wake—were critical for my grieving and healing process. For people in Sierra Leone, the contrast couldn't be any more profound: The Ebola outbreak has broken their sacred traditions for honoring the dead.

Catholic Relief Services has committed more than $1.5 million in private funds to continue its emergency response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where burial teams face difficult and dangerous working conditions. Photo by Michael Stulman/CRS
Catholic Relief Services has committed more than $1.5 million in private funds to continue its emergency response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where burial teams face difficult and dangerous working conditions. Photo by Michael Stulman/CRS

In Sierra Leone, rituals once included bathing and carefully tending to the body, a final show of love and respect. That now carries the risk of infection if the death was from Ebola. Bodies are extremely contagious and are one of the main sources of the spread of this virus.

Instead, this sacred ritual has been reduced to an impersonal process of men encased in protective gear whisking away bodies from the loving care of their families. This is heart-wrenching and frustrating for individuals, families and communities.

As Catholic Relief Services scales up our Ebola response, our team in Sierra Leone is establishing a command-and-control center to manage safe and dignified burials in Port Loko, a district of some 557,900 people in the Northern Province. Cases of Ebola there have been increasing steadily. CRS will work hand in hand with religious leaders of all faiths, who provide critical spiritual guidance in their communities. They will help families identify new rituals that are acceptable under their religious context, but are also safe.

Meanwhile, social mobilization teams that have been working on the ground for months, educating communities about Ebola and how to protect themselves, will provide counseling to help heal the emotional wounds of a grieving family.

CRS will also focus on improving monitoring and coordination so teams can respond immediately after an Ebola death has occurred. Currently, the rate at which people are dying is far outpacing the capacity to respond adequately. Families are waiting up to 7 days for a burial team to take the deceased, putting the entire family at risk of infection. Rough roads, broken-down vehicles and other logistical and operational problems add to the challenge.

When burial teams arrive at homes, they wear full-body protective equipment, spray chlorine on the body, and put the body in a bag before loading it into a truck. Ideally, there are two vehicles on site—one for transporting the bodies and another for the burial team. Unfortunately, limited resources means that sometimes there's only one vehicle available.

CRS provided funding to help rehabilitate this burial ground in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where workers are digging more than 40 graves per day. The growing Ebola outbreak has made safe and dignified burials more difficult. Photo by Maurice Boima/CRS
CRS provided funding to help rehabilitate this burial ground in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where workers are digging more than 40 graves per day. The growing Ebola outbreak has made safe and dignified burials more difficult. Photo by Maurice Boima/CRS

I can't imagine what it would be like to lose someone significant, like a grandfather, a parent or a child, and not be able to celebrate them in the ways they deserve. Our rituals give us solace, and provide ways to honor and dignify a life that has come to an end. Without these, we lose not only the opportunity to process our grief, but also the means to celebrate the lives of those most dear to us. To be told they cannot touch and care for the very people who helped shape their lives leaves a brutal scar on a people and a nation that has already lost so much.

As the death toll from Ebola mounts and the world moves to respond, we should not forget that these numbers represent countless thousands of loved ones. Each life lost was someone's mother, father, sibling, child or beloved grandfather. While it will be some time before people can return to their traditional rituals, CRS is providing safe alternatives that allow families and friends to grieve their dead in ways that give meaning and comfort, without compromising the health of those who survive.

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