Safe and dignified burials

Much is heard these days in Sierra Leone of so-called safe and dignified burials for Ebola victims. But what exactly is it?

First, which procedure was customary in Sierra Leone before Ebola? According to religious affiliation this may vary. The majority of people belong to the Islam, the second largest group are Christians. Common is that the farewell of deceased takes place within the family circle and includes the ceremony of washing the dead. The washing ceremony is perceived as an essential part of a proper burial.

At the beginning of the Ebola crisis, safety issues were taken radically more serious than the sentience of the local population. If Ebola patients died in treatment centers they were enfolded with two layers of plastic and buried quickly. The family was informed by phone after everything had been done. The relatives had no chance to see their loved ones. A traumatic experience.

By now this approach has been reconsidered. Notably the IFRC developed the concept of the safe and dignified burial and organizes burials in many parts of the country. After the death of a patient or if a person is found dead at home, s/he will be, unfortunately there is no other way, still be wrapped in two layers of plastic. But then follows a funeral rite in which a priest / Iman and the relatives can participate. There is a safety zone of 5m and the family will see the deceased only covered. But at least they can take part. The German website Gemeinsam für Afrika wrote the following about it:

Even a few months ago chaotic scenes took place in Sierra Leone on such occasions. Many relatives wanted their Ebola-dead not to be put into plastic bags and been taken away. Again and again the police came with tear gas. Meanwhile, the widespread education about Ebola via radio, street theater, house-to-house visits and poster campaigns shows more and more impact. People are increasingly willing to seek help. Auxiliary services such as grief assistants give them the opportunity to tie in traditions without putting themselves at risk. Information on this service are spread amongst others through the district administrations and their healthcare teams.

Nevertheless opinions are divided whether these are dignified burial conditions or not. There is a great social pressure in the communities: If a wife does not mourn loudly over her deceased husband or her deceased children, hugging and washing them, people may start talking bad about her. Grief must be publicly celebrated, if one does not want to lose his reputation as loyal family member.

Such deep-seated behaviors can not be changed overnight, no matter how long one appeals to sanity. Meanwhile, even the country’s president has called the population via television to suspend traditions and reintegrate them into everyday life not before the Ebola epidemic is gone. Unfortunately, I still hear almost on a daily basis of cases in which the dead were washed.

This article is a translation of Julias original article in German language.


Philippe translates Julias articles to English language so that more people can have access to her reports and information.

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