Traditions, Rites, and the Deadly Virus

‘Safe and dignified burials’ have been a top priority of the international and government agencies of the past months; with more reports of insensitivity by government burial teams – a lack of clarity as to grave locations, and a lack of religious formality to ceremonies – it is becoming a point of contention at both a localised and widespread national level.

Traditional burial rites have long been attributed as a cause for the virulent spreading of Ebola, with ceremonial body washing recognised as the main vehicle of transmission. It is all-too-easy for us, in the West, to criticise these traditional ceremonies, and to feel exasperated that they have been continued by the population for so long. Last week’s blog post investigated the reasons why youths would attack ambulances in order to prevent them being taken away to Ebola treatment centres. With no demonstrable improvement in the Ebola situation, and the treatment centre considered as a veritable death sentence, is it that difficult to see why the local population is losing faith in the international and government response? Bearing these things in mind, is it unlikely that some of these practices are still going on?

The importance of stopping these practices is incredible. As many as 350 Ebola deaths, and attributed as the main source of Ebola in Sierra Leone, have been linked back to 1 funeral – a traditional healer.[1] However, what is of equal, if not greater importance, is to ensure that Sierra Leone is unified by the counter-Ebola programmes, and not divided by them. With the very recent history that this troubled country has dealt with, it can not be allowed to slip back in to civil divisions. This factor demands us to address the problems that are currently being faced, which in turn brings the following questions in to focus: what is the importance of the religious ceremonies, and what are the social and spiritual implications of forgoing them? By identifying and addressing these things, the aid and government agencies may be able to pacify and win over an increasingly angered and alienated population.


As mentioned before, ‘Safe, and dignified burial’ has become a common phrase to have come out of the Ebola outbreak, particularly from government agencies and large NGOs. Contained within this succinct axiom is a socially and politically charged context. I mentioned in a previous bog post that the government and NGOs had come under popular criticism over the insensitive handling of burials, and that they would need to achieve the appropriate balance between swift and decisive burials, as well as accountability and sensitivity.

There are two issues addressed by the aforementioned phrase. The first is obvious – safety; Ebola-infected bodies are at their most contagious at the point of death, and they need to be contained and buried quickly in order to avoid any further unnecessary contagion. The second is more of a social issue – dignity; there is a responsibility on the burial teams and coordinators to maintain the religious respect for the deceased, and their families. The case that we featured last week demonstrated that this fine balance had not been struck – if you didn’t read the post, it contained the story of a family not being informed where their loved one had been buried – however, this sad story only covers one of the crucial elements of of the dignity that is sought.

A common justification for the virulent spread of Ebola has been the much-criticized ‘traditional burial practices’. Aside from not hearing what else was involved in a West African burial practice, other than the washing of the bodies, it struck me that I had not read any article around the history of these religious and social practices, nor the spiritual implications of forgoing them. Thus, I was finding it difficult to contextualise the anger and fervour that was being played out in the, seemingly, thoughtless crimes featured in last week’s blog.

M. Douglas Henry, on the website, writes that “reports often list Sierra Leoneans as 60 percent Muslim, 10 percent Christian, and 30 percent “indigenous believers.” These kinds of numbers often mask the degree to which religious beliefs in Sierra Leone may be flexible and accommodating. One can go to a Christian church on Sunday, for example, and still make a sacrifice to one’s ancestors for good fortune. Likewise, Muslim rituals may appear to dominate in some areas, yet these can become mixed with indigenous ideas or customs….”[2]

The indigenous ideas or customs, which Henry mentions in this description, predominantly refers to West African Animism. Wikipedia describes Animism as “encompass[ing] the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in some other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind, and shadows.”[3] Allan Anderson on describes it like this: “In the religions of Africa, life does not end with death, but continues in another realm. The concepts of “life” and “death” are not mutually exclusive concepts, and there are no clear dividing lines between them. Human existence is a dynamic process involving the increase or decrease of “power” or “life force,” of “living” and “dying,” and there are different levels of life and death.

Death in African religions is one of the last transitional stages of life requiring passage rites, and this too takes a long time to complete. The deceased must be “detached” from the living and make as smooth a transition to the next life as possible because the journey to the world of the dead has many interruptions. If the correct funeral rites are not observed, the deceased may come back to trouble the living relatives.” [4]

From a Western perspective we govern the division of our soul and body in death by the philosophy of Cartesian Dualism, meaning that the two selves occupy different realms of existence distinct from one another. Following this thinking, the ceremony of the funeral is therefore not one to liberate the soul, for it exists separately, but one for remembrance and tribute. In Animist belief, this is not the case; the soul is carried in the body and requires these specific rites and rituals to be enacted in order to send the soul on it’s path to the afterlife.

“Many African burial rites begin with the sending away of the departed with a request that they do not bring trouble to the living, and they end with a plea for the strengthening of life on the earth and all that favours it. Funerals are a time for the community to be in solidarity and to regain its identity. In some communities this may include dancing and merriment for all but the immediate family, thus limiting or even denying the destructive powers of death and providing the deceased with “light feet” for the journey to the other world.” [5] “Specific burial customs may vary by region or religion, yet practically all of them encompass a firm conviction in the existence of God and the spirit world, and especially in the abilities of one’s deceased ancestors to intervene in the activities of everyday life. Sacrifices, ritual remembrances, and prayer are made in order enlist ancestors’ support and good favor.”[6]

Regarding the majority of these traditional practices, there is sufficient evidence that points to Animism as their source. However, there is some contradiction and confusion surrounding the origins of the ceremonial body-washing that takes place in West Africa. The practice is common in Islam, and many speculate that it is an African adoption that stems from the spread of Islam to sub-Saharan Africa. The practice is of sufficient importance that some Imams have issued statements to local communities to dissuade them from undertaking the traditional practice of ghusl.

Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, a senior lecturer and an Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, states that “Islamic laws are based primarily on the benefit and well-being of humankind. As such, preservation of life and health is of greater priority in Islam than conducting the funeral rites over the deceased. Accordingly, if handling the dead body entails risk to the living, we are allowed to skip the former for the greater benefit of saving lives…Therefore, if washing the dead causes harm to the lives, we should avoid it in order to prevent spreading of the disease and, hence, the deaths.” [7]

Many of the other burial practices, which as a result of Ebola are unable to be enacted, hold a significant spiritual meaning for these communities. Due to the mixed nature of spirituality in the country, it is easy to see that one religious group’s absolution would not suffice. M. Douglas Henry notes that “besides Muslim and Christian holy leaders, there are a number of indigenous religious practitioners who are able to mediate with the spirit world. These include diviners, healers, men’s and women’s society elders, and witchcraft specialists.”[8] The prevalence of these religious practitioners, and, ironically, the importance of controlling these burial methods, is no better typified than in one of the greatest single events to have spread Ebola in to Sierra Leone. Early on in the Ebola outbreak, one child’s death was traced back to a Kailahun funeral. “The vicinity around Kailahun was home to a well-known and widely-respected traditional healer. Her famous healing powers were also known across the border in Guinea. As the outbreak in Guinea continued to swell, desperate patients sought her care.

Predictably, the healer became infected with the Ebola virus and died. Mourners came by the hundreds, also from other nearby towns, to honour her memory by participating in the traditional funeral and burial ceremony. Quick investigations by local health authorities suggested that participation in that funeral could be linked to as many as 365 Ebola deaths.”[9]

The interruption of the traditional funeral ceremony must be a troubling thing for these communities. Aside from the inevitable trauma that in an Ebola death, the inability for a family and community to bury their dead with the proper rites must be a deeply troubling thing. It has led to instances of stigmatisation of the dead that brings dishonour to the family.

The WHO recognises this fact. In a 17-page long handbook, entitled ‘How to conduct safe and dignified burial of a patient who has died from suspected or confirmed Ebola virus disease’, it says that “The burial process is very sensitive for the family and the community and can be the source of trouble or even open conflict. Before starting any procedure the family must be fully informed about the dignified burial process and their religious and personal rights to show respect for the deceased. Ensure that the formal agreement of the family has been given before starting the burial.”[10]

Considering these elements – and those that we covered in last week’s blog post, where youths had attacked 4 ambulances on the Port Loki road – we can begin to understand the passion that these communities feel towards the treatment of their deceased. However, the story of the traditional healer whose funeral led to the death of over 350 people exemplifies the exact reason that we need to press on with these unpopular, but safe, methods of burial. It is important that we do not look on with cold pragmatism, but it is also essential that we put the greater good of the country and the world before individuals. Unfortunately, we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands, and Sierra Leone will be feeling the consequences for many years to come.

The death toll is rising, and there are still calls from those NGOs operating within the country for greater international assistance and further commitments of aid, human resources, and money. There are serious shortfalls in the assistance that countries have so far provided, and Sierra Leone truly needs your compassion and help. As we’ve explained before, we are not in the position to contain the outbreak. We are fighting every day to control our own population and keep our compounds safe. However, once the virus has been controlled, we will be there to pick up the pieces. With your help, we have plans in motion to provide accommodation, education, and pastoral care for as many of those orphans of Ebola as we can manage.


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