When Ebola Takes Your Soul: Reflecting on Funerals and Ebola
The CDC has already issued directions for morticians in the US regarding deceased cases with Ebola. It’s a “better safe than sorry” admonition that reads, “Do not perform embalming. The risks of occupational exposure to Ebola virus while embalming outweighs its advantages; therefore, bodies infected with Ebola virus should not be embalmed.” And farther, “Remains should be cremated or buried promptly in a hermetically sealed casket” (Via CDC).
Unlike most pathogens, the Ebola virus lives for an unknown period of time after a victim’s death (Via Scientific American). Unfortunately, the assumption that the virus dies along with the deceased has been a major cause of its spread in parts of Africa where touching and handling the body is a common practice for the deceased’s living family members. Some have claimed that ‘Up to 50% of victims catch Ebola at funerals’ (Via RT.com).
One case in point is that of the former Miss Liberia beauty queen, Shurina Weah. Shurina’s sister died and even though her sister’s death certificate ruled out Ebola, shortly after the funeral was held numerous family and friends contracted the virus, many become sick and some – including the beauty queen Shurina herself – died (although the family continues to claim that Shurina died of malaria).
And this is the problem that’s being presented in Liberia: Not all deaths are able to be investigated. Some could be due to malaria and some could be due to Ebola. Since no one knows for sure, all deaths are being treated as potential Ebola cases. And as of August, the Liberian government has declared that all deceased persons should be cremated (there are a few exceptions).
Now before you fall into the Ebola hysteria, remember that if you’re a US citizen you’re more likely to be killed by a falling vending machine than from Ebola. More people in the US have supposedly died from spontaneous combustion than from Ebola. And there’s less US citizens who have died of Ebola than have been married to Kim Kardashian.
For the Liberians, it’s a different story. Not only are people dying, but their very death culture is being circumvented by government decreed cremation. Traditionally, Liberian mourners bathe the body of the deceased, they clothe it and many even kiss the deceased as a token of farewell. Per TIME:
The government directive, while logical from an epidemiological aspect, has taken a toll on a society already traumatized by Ebola’s sweep. It denies communities a final farewell, and has led to standoffs with the Dead Body Management teams who must pick up the dead even as the living insist that the cause of death was measles, or stroke, or malaria — anything but Ebola. “We take every body, and burn it,” says Nelson Sayon, who works on one of the teams. Dealing with the living is one of the most difficult aspects of his job, he says, because he knows how important grieving can be. “No one gets their body back, not even the ashes, so there is nothing physical left to mourn.”
Monrovia’s mass cremations, which take place in a rural area far on the outskirts of town, happen at night, to minimize the impact on neighboring communities. For a while the bodies were simply burned in a pile; now they are placed in incinerators donated by an international NGO. There are so many that it can sometimes take all night, says Sayon. )
For many people groups, death rites are foundational for the community’s ethos … for the community’s soul. And when those death rites are denied, the community struggles for life. And while the US will probably never have a Liberian experience with Ebola, I can’t help but think how mandated cremation (and/or direct burial) would affect our death culture here in the states.
Actually, I’m not sure our death culture would change all that much. Because I’m not sure we have a death culture. Here in the U.S. and the West, we view death (per Philippe Ariès) as “invisible death”, where dying is handled by institutions and the dead are handled by “funeral professionals” who make it as clean as possible.
Unless we’re a part of a traditional religious community, I’m not sure many of us have death rites. And I know that few of us touch the dead like other cultures do. Few of us are involved in ritual washing and dressing of the body. Few of us see meaning in embracing the dead with a kiss … in fact, some probably see it as creepy. In the US, we already treat our dead as if they have Ebola.
Luckily for us in the Western world, our death culture doesn’t have a “soul”, so we don’t have to worry about Ebola taking it. If fact, government mandated cremation and direct burial might suit our death culture very nicely.