Liberia Honors Cremated Ebola Victims

Liberia Honors Cremated Ebola Victims

By Alice Urban, Global Communities

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Chief Zanzan Karwa (center), chairman of the National Council of Chiefs and Elders, leads a group of traditional leaders processing with the ashes of some 3,000 Ebola vicitims who were cremated at the height of the crisis.

Disco Hill, Liberia – A solemn line of more than 100 traditional chiefs, religious leaders, choir members and cemetery workers walked slowly alongside a row of pickup trucks. An uncommon site on the newly constructed road to the Disco Hill safe burial site near Monrovia, the group processed with the ashes of about 3,000 Ebola victims who were cremated during the height of Liberia’s outbreak.

Over the past several weeks, the U.S.-based nonprofit Global Communities has worked closely with traditional and religious leaders and the Liberian Ministry of Health to devise a plan to provide a dignified temporary resting place for the ashes.

“Today we will show concern and appreciate the safe burial site,” said Setta Fofana Saah, national coordinator for the Council of Chiefs and Elders – Liberia’s traditional authority.

“We went to the crematorium site, and everyone shed tears. It was so frustrating to see how people who died from the disease were burnt – it is not in our culture,” she said. “Here, we come to see that they will be in a safe area. It is a blessing and brings some relief to us as traditional leaders, and we embrace that.”

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Disco Hill staffers accompany 16 drums of ashes transported in pick-up trucks to the site where they where laid to rest until a national memorial is constructed.

The process to move the ashes spanned several days, and traditional leaders first conducted a private ceremony at the crematorium last week to ask ancestors for forgiveness for the Government of Liberia cremation mandate and to ask for intercession in the successful transfer of the ashes to their resting place. The transfer seeks to provide some closure for families traumatized by the hasty cremation of their loved ones – a controversial government policy that sought to rapidly remove contagious corpses from communities but resulted in rushed, undocumented cremations.

After the private ceremony at the crematorium, some 30 traditional leaders visited Disco Hill to perform traditional rites and to inspect the site where the ashes will be interred until the Government of Liberia constructs a national memorial sometime in the future. The ceremony also included singing, prayer and drumming and dancing by traditional performers.

Following the traditional ceremonies on Friday, ashes were transferred Saturday. Traditional and religious leaders gathered at the country’s only crematorium where the ashes have been stored since late 2014. They prayed for those who lost their lives to the virus as well as the crematorium workers tasked with the gruesome job of burning thousands of bodies with insufficient training or equipment.

“This event is about sending out the message that although Ebola really ravaged the country, we also care. Cremation is not in our culture, and we learned a bitter lesson,” said Amos Gborie, deputy director of the Environmental Health Directorate at the Ministry of Health.

Sixteen 55-gallon drums of ashes wrapped in white cloth and red ribbon were then transported to Disco Hill. As the convoy neared the site, leaders and Disco Hill staff slowed the vehicles and walked along the vehicles carrying the ashes to accompany them to their temporary resting place. More than 250 traditional and religious leaders, choirs, cemetery staff, Ministry of Health representatives, family members and the general public then gathered for an interfaith prayer service.

Global Communities Country Director Piet deVries addressed the crowd, noting that the country is beginning a new chapter as Ebola rates have reached zero and the country waits for the 42-day mark with no new cases to declare the epidemic over. “We want to thank you for coming here. We want to welcome you to this place where people can be buried with safety and dignity,” he said.

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Members of a traditional song and dance group react to the arrival of the ashes.

In October, Global Communities rapidly rolled out a burial team model that reduced the frequency of untrained family- or funeral home-conducted burials as part of the USAID-funded Assisting Liberians with Education to Reduce Transmission (ALERT) program. In December, the Disco Hill safe burial site opened about an hour outside Monrovia in Margibi County. The site, which was purchased by the Government of Liberia and was developed and managed by Global Communities, has provided safe and dignified burials for more than 550 deceased. Now, the site will also house the ashes of those who were cremated before Disco Hill made cremation unnecessary.

“We want to inter the remains in a more respectful way. This is a form of healing,” said Gborie. “We hope that the relatives whose loved ones were cremated will have time on Decoration Day to mourn them.”

A national holiday acknowledged every second Wednesday of March, Decoration Day honors the dead, and family members visit the graves of deceased loved ones to clean the space and lay wreaths and flowers. This year, the holiday fell a few days after the ash transfer.

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Wreaths commemorate the 3,000 individuals who were cremated and whose ashes will remain at Disco Hill until a permanent national memorial is constructed.

Friends, relatives, students and Liberian government and non-government organization officials visited Disco Hill on Decoration Day to lay wreaths at both graves and the cremation ash sanctuary.

“We see Ebola as a real war,” said Boakai Dukuly, vice chair of the Liberian Independent National Commission on Human Rights, an organization tasked with promoting peace and reconciliation activities after the Liberian civil wars. The group sent a delegation to lay a wreath at the site of the ashes.

“We see [those who died] as victims…and here families can come together to lay a wreath. It can never bring them back, but families can go to the site to see where their brother is buried,” Dukuly said. He added that families of those who were cremated never will be able to visit a specific grave, but they can come to Disco Hill to visit where their ashes have been temporarily laid to rest. His brother was among them.

An interfaith prayer service organized by the Government of Liberia took place earlier in the day in Monrovia, and a group of Ebola survivors, Ministry of Health and Education officials and students visited Disco Hill to also lay wreaths and pay their respects.

“The enemy has been defeated,” said Dehwehn Omarley Yeabah, director of the Ministry of Health Environmental Health Directorate, referring to Ebola as he lay a wreath at the ashes repository. “We deposit this wreath in commemoration and remembrance of those who have passed,” he said.