Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Missing Bodies and Secret Funerals: The Production of “Safe and Dignified Burials” in the Liberian Ebola Crisis

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Missing Bodies and Secret Funerals: The Production of “Safe and Dignified Burials” in the Liberian Ebola Crisis

Article excerpt

In a domain of knowledge production often characterized by extreme particularism, one of the few universals acknowledged by anthropologists is that all human communities mark the threshold between life and death. Indeed, archaeological evidence of intentional burial, grave goods, and other mortuary rituals are considered a signature behavior of our species, shared only with those other forms of humanity close enough to interbreed and dating back at least 50,000 years (Than 2013). Robert Hertz, a student of Durkheim, is credited with first distinguishing theoretically between the biological reality of the human corpse and the "social lives" of dead bodies, which cannot be simply disposed of without "a sacrilege against the social order" (Hertz 1907 as quoted in Laqueur 2015:10). It is not surprising, then, that treatment of the dead emerged as a central theme of the new knowledge on the deadly West African Ebola virus outbreak. Since Ebola was first identified in 1976, fatality rates have ranged from 60 to 75 percent (Quammen 2014:16) and the virus, present in the blood, vomit, and excreta of the infected, is known to spread easily to care givers. The greatest danger of contagion comes from late-stage bodily fluids and the corpse itself. Therefore, corpses must be redefined as dangerous and new ways of handling and disposing of them introduced. In the early stages of the 2014 outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, contact tracing identified the connection between attendance and participation in funerals and emerging clusters of the disease in dispersed rural communities. Western media reports, after a brief and inaccurate obsession with meat from wild game as a source of transmission (Benton 2014, McGovern 2014), pivoted quickly to "traditional burial practices" for their headlines. Reports that people in the affected areas were resisting attempts to "properly" dispose of the dead bodies, even to the point of attacking and killing public health officials (for examples, see Al Jazeera 2014 or Associated Press 2014) appeared as the epidemic peaked in the late summer and early fall. Efforts by national authorities to impose mandatory cremation, as ordered by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia in August 2014, resulted in reports of "secret funerals" as families sought to avoid a method of disposal they found culturally and religiously repugnant.

Such accounts proved irresistible to reporters looking for a "human" angle on the Ebola story. This article considers how knowledge about "traditional" funerary practices was produced by a diverse group of actors, united by their desire to save lives but often in uneasy alliances and collaborations with each other. These actors included biomedical researchers, medical professionals, and public health authorities, anthropologists, national political leaders, journalists, and the "resistant" local communities, whose sometimes violent reactions to the appropriation of bodies for disposal fit neatly within tropes of African primitivism. Specifically, the dangerous practices most commonly defined as "traditional," as revealed by a review of both official reports and international press coverage, were washing (or bathing), touching, and kissing the corpse of someone who had died of Ebola. These three activities, which are mentioned in virtually all of a sample of over 300 media reports identifying burial practices as key to spreading the disease, were presented by journalists as exotic and mystifying; practiced by superstitious people who live in fear of retribution from the dead. Politicians and public health officials of the national governments, battered by accusations that they were responding too slowly to the crisis, publicly blamed their own citizens for their "backwardness" and made it a criminal offense to hide bodies or those suffering from symptoms. Between August and December of 2014, the Liberian government imposed a policy of mandatory cremation in the Monrovia region for all dead bodies, although acknowledging that such a disposal method would be highly unpopular (Allen and Lacson 2015:2). …

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