The Dead Bodies of the West African Ebola Epidemic: Understanding the Importance of Traditional Burial Practices

By Jamie J. Shah
2015, Vol. 7 No. 11 | pg. 4/4 |


Mourning and burial traditions that incorporate the use of the corpse are very important in West Africa. The anthropological themes of understanding death as a continual process and as a rite of passage fit well within West African religious philosophy in understanding the mortuary traditions. The main goal of the burial traditions in West Africa is to ensure that the soul of the deceased makes a safe passage to the ancestral world and more importantly, does not find its way back to the living. When the particular rituals are not completed though, the dead body is left in liminal state where it is not yet part of the afterlife but not part of human life either.

This liminal period causes much anxiety for the relatives of the deceased who want their loved ones to have a complete transition to the afterlife. Many of the traditional methods of burial are in direct conflict with the recommended policies of health care organizations response to Ebola virus disease because they required the body to be touched, washed, or kissed prior to burial. Though the safe body handling procedures neglect the wishes of the families, they minimize the risk of the spread of the infection.

In order to combat the healthcare workers control of the corpses, many families will fight to keep the bodies of their loved ones or get them back after that have been taken. The negative implications of not successfully completing all traditional burial rituals are too high for families to agree to not perform them.

Previous anthropological studies about death can really teach a lot to current health care workers and researchers about West African burial rituals. Future research must emphasize bridging the divide between acknowledging that there are important social rituals associated with death versus taking action to lessen the damages from it. In the future, health care workers should work more closely with anthropologists in the field to effectively contain the spread of Ebola virus disease.


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