Public relieved after Liberia halts Ebola cremations
The cremation practice is alien to Liberian culture and tradition
The Liberian government's recent decision to halt the practice of cremating Ebola victims has come as relief to many Liberians who saw the practice as alien to local tradition.
"The decision by the government to burn human beings made people scared, including myself," Emmanuel Fallah, a 32-year-old driver in Monrovia, told The Anadolu Agency.
"If any of my relatives came down with Ebola and died, I would have preferred to… bury the body myself than to see my family member being burned," he said.
In recent months, Ebola – a contagious disease for which there is no known treatment or cure – has killed 8,235 people, mostly in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In Liberia alone, the virus has claimed a total of 3,496 lives out of 8,157 registered infections.
For months, community dwellers had shown hostility to government burial teams, who were prevented from carrying out controlled burials of Ebola victims.
Bodies were found unattended in many communities as families and relatives deserted their homes due to the presence of dead relatives.
Burial teams were eventually overwhelmed by the large number of bodies found in and around capital Monrovia.
In August of last year, the government announced that – following advice from health experts and as part of containment efforts – it would start cremating, rather than burying, Ebola victims.
It began by turning a crematorium owned by the local Indian community in Margibi County into a site for burning those who had succumbed to the virus.
The measure was the first of its kind in the country's history, as the practice of cremation is alien to Liberian culture and tradition.
"I lost some friends to Ebola. The frustrating thing is that, when Ebola is gone, we will not be able to visit their graves," Ronny Abraham, a 47-year-old unemployed Monrovia resident, told AA.
"This Ebola situation is even worse than the war," he said, referring to the civil war that ravaged the country from 1999 to 2003.
"During the war, human beings were not being burned [i.e., cremated]," Abraham lamented.
The government, however, recently decided to halt the practice after allocating a 50-acre plot of land in northwestern Liberia's Montserrado County to be used as an Ebola burial site.
Liberia has been the only Ebola-hit West African country to resort to cremation to dispose of dead bodies, drawing criticism from the country's traditional leaders and much of the public.
Joseph Thomas, a 43-year-old court clerk from Gbapolu County, believes that, now that the government has halted the practice, the public will be less reluctant to call the government's emergency Ebola hotline to report suspected cases in their homes and communities.
Rose Gweh, a 38-year-old cross-border trader, agreed.
"Guinea and Sierra Leone never burned [cremated] their citizens, but our government allowed our fellow Liberians to be burned like animals," she told AA angrily.
"It was the burning of bodies that made it difficult for this Ebola virus to go [i.e., to be eradicated]," Gweh fumed.
"People didn't want their brothers and fathers and mothers burned, so they kept Ebola patients at home," she said. "That was how it spread among families and communities."
Dennis Gaye, a 30-year-old junior student at the University of Liberia, is angry that it took the government months to designate a national burial site for Ebola victims.
"I would have expected the government to do that from the outset," he told AA.
"Even before the Ebola situation worsened, there were people who did not die of Ebola – but because the government said we shouldn't touch them, they were burnt at the crematorium anyway," Gaye asserted.
"I'm happy there is no more cremation, but we are not happy that the families of people who died of Ebola have no graves to visit," he said.
Gaye said the government's recent decision to halt the practice of cremating Ebola victims was "overdue."
"Burying bodies is necessary; this should have been done a long time ago," he said.
Unlike most Liberians, John Agray, for his part, believes the government should maintain the practice.
"The government told us that the WHO [World Health Organization] and the [Atlanta-based] Center for Disease Control had advised them to burn Ebola bodies. So why is it now saying that we should bury them?" he asked.
Agray, a student at the University of Liberia, hopes the return to regular burial practices will not lead to another Ebola outbreak.
The move has cheered residents of Margibi County, home to the country's sole Ebola crematorium. For months, locals had campaigned to have the crematorium – situated in the center of the community – removed.
The crematorium is surrounded by more than 500 homes located along the Marshall Highway outside Monrovia.
The community had complained of smoke, loud explosions, and the trauma associated with watching human bodies burn.
"God has answered our prayers; the thing we advocated for has finally happened," community chairperson Albert Reeves told AA.
"Over the past week and a half, we have slept in peace. We no longer see trucks full of dead bodies moving into our communities for burning," he added, visibly relieved.
Every day, community residents would watch as trucks loaded with bodies – of men, women and children – were brought in to be cremated.
Up to 30 bodies were then placed on firewood and burned, causing smoke to billow into the sky and a bad smell.
"What we saw in recent months has traumatized us and the entire community," Reeves said. "We are psychologically traumatized by all the bodies that were burned in our community."
Reeves and his community have appealed to the government for compensation to help them overcome future health and social challenges.
"Some of the local youths and men that had been contracted to work at the crematorium are now stigmatized by their own communities because the role they played burning bodies," he told AA.
"These people need benefits [compensation] to resettle," he said.
Last Modified: 2015-01-13 12:00:34
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