Nowhere to grieve: Ebola overshadows Decoration Day in Liberia

By Prince Collins

Thousands of recently bereaved Liberian families, in the wake of the ongoing Ebola outbreak, had no graves to visit during Decoration Day yesterday – an annual event when people clean and decorate the tombstones of loved ones, in order to pay their respects, remember past deeds and accomplishments, and express gratitude for the sacrifices of bygone generations.

  Families clean up and repaint the tombstones of their loved ones as part of Decoration Day rituals, on 11 March in Monrovia’s Center Street Cemetery. (Anita Dullard/IFRC)

Families clean up and repaint the tombstones of their loved ones as part of Decoration Day rituals, on 11 March in Monrovia’s Center Street Cemetery. (Anita Dullard/IFRC)

In order to help control the spread of the virus, the bodies of many Ebola victims were either cremated, or else put into body bags in unmarked graves. This has had a serious emotional and psychological effect on people in a country where traditional burial practices are deeply embedded in both religion and culture.

  More than 350 Ebola victims have been buried at Disco Hill Cemetery, outside Monrovia, since December 2014. (Nurudeen Sanni/IFRC)

More than 350 Ebola victims have been buried at Disco Hill Cemetery, outside Monrovia, since December 2014. (Nurudeen Sanni/IFRC)

“Decoration Day is a unique way of mourning our dead,” said Roselyn Nuguba-Ballah, a burial team coordinator with the Liberian National Red Cross. “Those that don’t have a grave to go to today feel terrible. They don’t have anywhere to go to mourn those dead people…[But] in my own opinion, I think [cremation] was one of the best decisions that the government made.”  

  Roselyn Nuguba-Ballah is the coordinator of the Liberian Red Cross’s safe and dignified burial team, which have buried 3,535 Ebola victims in in a safe and dignified way since the outbreak began. (Nurudeen Sanni/IFRC) 

Roselyn Nuguba-Ballah is the coordinator of the Liberian Red Cross’s safe and dignified burial team, which have buried 3,535 Ebola victims in in a safe and dignified way since the outbreak began. (Nurudeen Sanni/IFRC) 

“I don’t know where they took her,” said Siah Kollie, whose mother’s body sat in her home for three days in November before being taken away by an Ebola burial team. “Traditional burials are very important in our society because it is on this day that we gather as family to go to the graves and have rituals and at the same time sing and pray for your dead relatives…But this can’t be done today [because] there is no grave. It’s too bad. We would really have loved to give Mama a befitting burial, but Ebola did not allow us to do so. The only thing we can do is stay home and reflect on the good work Mama did for us while she was alive.”

  Disco Hill Cemetery was opened outside of Monrovia in December 2014 to accommodate the rising Ebola death toll and to allow victims to be buried in a safe and dignified way. (Nurudeen Sanni/IFRC)

Disco Hill Cemetery was opened outside of Monrovia in December 2014 to accommodate the rising Ebola death toll and to allow victims to be buried in a safe and dignified way. (Nurudeen Sanni/IFRC)

Tawah Tamba, a 48-year-old Monrovian resident who lost her husband of 27 years to Ebola in August told IRIN: “Today is a sad day for me. [When my husband died] the Ebola team came for him and took him to the cremation site. He was burnt…All I do is just cry and cry and cry. The only thing I can say is that wherever he is, let God be with him and let him know that we are still here.”

 Center Street Cemetery, Monrovia. (Nurudeen Sanni/IFRC)

Center Street Cemetery, Monrovia. (Nurudeen Sanni/IFRC)

“I feel so confused,” said Sarah Jackson, 51, of Monrovia, who lost her only child to Ebola. “My son does not have a grave. I love him and would have loved to do everything to make his spirit feel happy. But it is not possible. What has this [Ebola] done?” she asked, beating her chest. “If you could see how bitter I feel, you would not believe it.”

 Center Street Cemetery, Monrovia. (Nurudeen Sanni/IFRC)

Center Street Cemetery, Monrovia. (Nurudeen Sanni/IFRC)

“We did all we could do to go with the burial team to see what they were going to do with the body, but they told us not to follow them,” said Dennis Weah, whose wife, a nurse, died from Ebola in September. “They took her to be cremated. This hurt us so badly. My wife has no grave…I still can’t understand. We would have loved to go and see her grave today…but the story is different today.”

  Bettar Howard tends to the grave of his mother in Unification Cemetery in Monrovia on 11 March. (Prince Collins/IRIN)

Bettar Howard tends to the grave of his mother in Unification Cemetery in Monrovia on 11 March. (Prince Collins/IRIN)

“I cannot feel good that my mother doesn’t have a grave and my father doesn’t have a grave,” said Jenkins Varney, a member of the safe and dignified burials team in Liberia, who lost both his parents to Ebola. “It does not make me pleased.”

  “I started [burying bodies] because we are helping the country…to fight this virus so it will be out of this country,” said Jenkins Varney, who joined the Liberian Red Cross’s safe and dignified burials team in September 2014. (Nurudeen Sanni/IFRC)

“I started [burying bodies] because we are helping the country…to fight this virus so it will be out of this country,” said Jenkins Varney, who joined the Liberian Red Cross’s safe and dignified burials team in September 2014. (Nurudeen Sanni/IFRC)

Jenkins older sister, Satta Kormah, added: “[We] are not even eating because for our people there is no grave. Where will we go...? To decorate no grave? We’ll just be feeling bad. It’s not easy.”

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