Kissing the corpses in Ebola country

In the Ugandan ceremonies the Hewletts witnessed, the sister of the deceased’s father is responsible for bathing, cleaning, and dressing the body in a “favorite outfit.” This task, they write, is “too emotionally painful” for the immediate family. In the event that no aunt exists, a female elder in the community takes this role on. The next step, the mourning, is where the real ceremony takes place. “Funerals are major cultural events that can last for days, depending on the status of the deceased person,” they write. As the women “wail” and the men “dance,” the community takes time to “demonstrate care and respect for the dead.” The more important the person, the longer the mourning. When the ceremony is coming to a close, a common bowl is used for ritual hand-washing, and a final touch or kiss on the face of the corpse (which is known as a “a love touch”) is bestowed on the dead. When the ceremony has concluded, the body is buried on land that directly adjoins the deceased’s house because “the family wants the spirit to be happy and not feel forgotten.”

According to the Hewletts’ analysis, these burial rituals and funerals are a critical way for the community to safely transfer the deceased into the afterlife. Prohibiting families from performing such rites is not only viewed as an affront to the deceased, but as actually putting the family in danger. “In the event of an improper burial, the deceased person’s spirit (tibo) will cause harm and illness to the family,” the Hewletts write. In Sierra Leone, O’Sullivan experienced similar sentiments when proper burials were not performed. “It is tragic. In those countries they feel very strongly about being able to say goodbye to their ancestors. To not be able to have that ritual, or treat them with the respect they traditionally give for those who passed away is very difficult,” says O’Sullivan. “Especially in concert with the fear of the disease in general.”