Ebola robs families of a place to grieve on Liberia’s Decoration Day

Published: 13 March 2015 8:12 CET

By Anita Dullard, IFRC

Observed since 1916, Decoration Day is a unique tradition in Liberia to remember and celebrate loved ones who have died. People visit the graves of their loved ones, clean them, paint them and lay wreaths. This week marked the first Decoration Day since the deadly Ebola outbreak, and for thousands of people grieving family and friends killed by the virus, there are no graves to decorate.

The government was forced to introduce cremation in Montserrado, the worst affected county, during the rainy season last year, which happened to coincide with the peak of the crisis. Bodies were so contagious and dangerous to communities, that graves had to be at least two metres deep. The rainy season made that impossible, and cremation was mandated. Of the more than 3,500 bodies collected by Liberian Red Cross Society safe and dignified burial teams in Montserrado, almost 3,000 were cremated.

Roselyn Nugba-Ballah, supervisor of the Red Cross safe and dignified burial teams, says “Cremation is not in our culture. It was very challenging when we were called into communities to collect bodies because people resisted letting go of their loved ones. They were being told they couldn’t do all the rituals we have for our loved ones who pass.

“Without a grave to go to, they have nothing to decorate to honour their loved ones.” Roselyn says, “They’re feeling it all over again.”

Jenkins Varney, a volunteer with the Liberian Red Cross Society’s safe and dignified burial teams, lost both his parents when Ebola struck his community. Over the course of one month, Jenkins lost 13 family members, including both his father and mother. “My father had brought someone who was very sick into their house, trying to help her. He didn’t know that she had Ebola.” The woman died just days later. Jenkins’ father then became unwell.

“My mother called me up and told me, `Your father is very sick but your father is not having Ebola.’ I said to her, ‘we are fighting a virus so you need to keep by yourself.’ I told her but she never listened to me.” Jenkins’ father was taken to an Ebola treatment unit where he died the next day. Jenkins’ mother, who had cared for her husband and his brothers, died at home five days later.

Jenkins got the call to say his parents had died while he was out with the safe and dignified burials team. By the time he arrived at his parents’ house, another Red Cross team had already collected his mother’s body and taken it to the crematorium.

“When I asked my team, `you have already taken my mother to be burned?’, they said that they had and that my father had been taken there too.”

Jenkins’ four siblings still live at the family home. His younger sister Jenny says, “My mother and my father do not have graves. For Decoration Day, I did nothing. We were alone, thinking about our parents. It’s too sad for us.”

The family has had a tough time. “Since my parents died, it’s hard to get food,” says Jenkins. “Any time my sisters want to buy anything, they go into the community and they are stigmatized. The community tells them `you should not come around us’. So they cannot feel pleased, they’re always by themselves.”

For Jenkins, Decoration Day was one of quiet reflection. “After everything, I just want to go back to school and do my normal things and be the way I was before. My parents are dead and gone, they cannot come back again. I just wanted to be by myself on Decoration Day and think about my parents.”