The men recruited to incinerate the bodies of those killed by the Ebola outbreak in Liberia last year mostly live together in squalor, succumbing to alcohol abuse, as their community rejects them for being involved in the taboo treatment of the dead.
This is what The New York Times found upon returning to Liberia, where the outbreak is not entirely over, yet normalcy is taking shape. Speaking with some of the men in the group of about 30 workers recruited to burn, rather than bury, the bodies of Ebola victims to prevent the disease from consuming entire communities, the group expressed despair at their isolation and guilt at their part in quelling an outbreak that threatened to kill a significant portion of the population.
“My ma said, ‘You burning body?’ Then I’nt want see you no more around me,” Matthew Harmon told the newspaper, noting that no one in his family spoke to him anymore. When identified, another man said, they are kicked out of taxi cabs and openly mocked. “When they see us, they say, ‘That’s Ebola burner them, oh,’” another noted.
The group of 30 men, The New York Times notes, burned nearly 2,000 bodies, up to 100 a day. They began by using an incinerator, but turned to the use of pyres after finding the incinerator left bones behind. They did not want to deal with the humanity of their subjects. Nor did they want to deal with the local population, which convened near the burning site to insult them while they did their work.
In addition to their pay, the government gave the men a certificate of appreciation and extra bottles of cane juice, a strong spirit, to get them through the work. Shunned by family and friends, they mostly live together and drink.
The stigma surrounding “Ebola burners” exists because incinerating bodies is especially taboo in West Africa. Traditional burial practices demand extensive contact with the deceased’s body, including cleaning and dressing the person before he is buried. This allows Ebola to spread rapidly through funerals. In Liberia, as well as Sierra Leone and Guinea, the nations most strongly affected by the outbreak, residents rebelled against mandatory incineration by hiding and stealing bodies and protesting those who did the work at mausoleums.
Neighborhoods near cremation centers demanded the facilities be relocated. Albert Reeves, community chairman in Margibi County, home to a crematory typically used by Indian transplants, said in October 2014, “Many here are affected psychologically and what we are asking for is the relocation of the crematorium by the Liberian government. Whenever the human bodies are being burnt in the morning and in the afternoon, there are huge explosions and everyone here can feel the ground itself shaking.”
More than a year later, in November 2015, a local report found locals still struggling to shut down the crematory. Few bodies are being burned there now, but one anonymous resident says the psychological pain is overwhelming: “We want the government to relocate the Indian cremation center based in Duazon, Margibi County because the population of the area is gradually increasing and the memories of victims of Ebola are still rife with unforgettable tales to ponder.”
A 26-year-old man named Justin Lomax is quoted in the article as saying that he was “hounded out of his community” for once volunteering to help properly dispose of bodies at the cremation center.
The lack of a tomb to visit is a large burden to bear for many families. Liberians celebrate a holiday called “Decoration Day” in March, where families clean and decorate the tombs of the deceased. To give the relatives of Ebola victims a tomb to clean on that day, the federal government is planning the construction of a large memorial at the final resting place of the ashes of those cremated.