Village Funerals and the Spread of Ebola Virus Disease

This piece is extracted from a longer, multi-authored study of Ebola virus disease (EVD) currently in preparation.

The greatest numbers of Ebola virus disease (EVD) cases to date in Sierra Leone are found in villages in Mende-speaking areas. Funerals are known to be a factor in communicating EVD. The corpse is often still highly infectious. Cases have been reported in which the virus has been transmitted to mourners at funerals and especially to those involved in preparing the body for burial. Thus, it is important to understand Mende village burial practices.

Mourners may contract the disease by touching the corpse to express sympathy or say farewell or by coming into contact with those who have nursed an Ebola patient. In other cases, it is the movement of the corpse between villages that is likely to pose a transmission risk to neighboring communities. This risk might occur when a woman relocated upon marriage to her husband's village dies, and, for reasons to be explained, needs to interred at home.

Typically, a third to a half of all married women in a Mende village have been born in another settlement, generally a neighboring village, though some come from further afield. In Mende settlements, persons living outside their village of birth are known as hota (stranger). Natives of the settlement are tali (town people). Female marriage partners from outside the village are also classified as hota. A female hota in an incomplete marriage is liable to be taken to the village of her lineage for burial.

Marriage for Mende villagers is a process, not a state. A relationship begins upon agreement that certain gifts and services will be provided for the parents and family of the woman by the husband in recognition of that lineage's gift of a bride. Certain offerings are made to initiate the relationship, but the marriage is incomplete until everything promised is fulfilled. A prospective son-in-law offers labor and material help to his partner's parents for many years before he can say the marriage is fully cemented.

In a recent study (May–June 2014) of three villages in Kamajei chiefdom (Moyamba District) data were collected on 79 current marriage partnerships. This was a random sample of about one third of all marriages in the three settlements. The female partner was hota (i.e. came from outside the village) in 62.2 percent of cases (averaged over the three villages). In only 15.9 percent of cases was the marriage recognized to be complete. The figure was smaller for tali marriages (8.8 percent).

The hota partners of incomplete marriages are of special significance to the spread of Ebola, since in the case that the woman dies the husband will be expected to travel to her home village and make a settlement of outstanding marriage promises before he is given permission by the family to bury his wife's corpse. Burial will generally then be done in the woman's village.

Considerable efforts are often made to bring the deceased home to her family when the marriage is as yet incomplete. Richards (unpublished fieldnotes) records that when working in Mogbuama in 1983 he was woken in the middle of the night with a request to drive his truck to a village about sixty kilometers distant to bring back home a young woman suffering the final stages of TB. She died and was buried at home the next day.

In other cases where the female partner's home is distant, burial may, for practical reasons, have to take place in the husband's village, but the husband will need immediately afterwards to travel to his wife's home to make settlement with his affines. In a sense, he is not fully married up until this point. If he cannot or refuses to make settlement then it is not unknown for the woman's family to take control of the burial arrangements and also to claim the children from the marriage.

The information that burial can precede full settlement of the marriage contract is significant in relation to Ebola control, since it shows that Mende villagers are practical and can adjust their funeral practices to obvious contingencies, such as the need to bury the body without delay. In the three survey villages, marriages in which the woman came from a distant settlement (i.e. a settlement outside outside the chiefdom), and where in situ burial would thus be a practical necessity, accounted for between 13 and 27 percent of all marriages by women not born in the three villages in question (data not tabulated).

Conclusion

More than 80 percent of all marriages in which the female partner comes from another village are incomplete in the three Kpa-Mende villages surveyed. This figure calibrates the substantial potential for mourners and corpses to move between villages for burial when female frontline caregivers are affected by EVD. Villagers need advice and equipment to ensure safe burials of Ebola victims. If the risks of delayed burial and the movement of corpses are well explained, there is every reason to expect that practical adjustments of funeral practices consistent with Ebola control will be locally implemented.

Cover image: Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images