In Sierra Leone, biohazard suits and a funeral in the age of Ebola

The pressure to stop family funerals so as to halt the spread of Ebola has turned death into an especially antiseptic affair in Sierra Leone's capital, Carolyn Dunn reports. But it may be working.

You can barely hear a prayer amid the sobs of the women as the body of a 31-year-old woman is carried out of her tiny house here in Freetown.

A few dozen neighbours, some of them family, have turned up to watch the remains of a woman called Maritau being loaded into a white ambulance with the word "hearse" written in black on the doors.

At the front of the small crowd is her husband, Edward Kamada, and their three children. He breaks down and tells us, simply, "I lost my wife."

His youngest child, a boy around five years old, pulls his T-shirt over his face to hide his tears.

Edward Kamada and his three children stand outside their home in Freetown, Sierra Leone, as his wife is taken away by a public medical team to be buried. (Carolyn Dunn / South Africa)

This is what a funeral looks like these days in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leona and a focal point of the Ebola outbreak.  

Maritau's body has been wrapped twice in medical body bags.  Her pallbearers are strangers, wearing biohazard suits and full face masks.  

Andella Carew and her sister are among the handful of women who work on a burial team. "I'm doing it for my country" Carew says. "If I don't do it, who will?"

The sisters are certain their personal protection equipment will keep them safe from the virus. But they admit that not everyone shares that confidence.

"My friends have abandoned me, even my boyfriend sacked me," Fudia Kamara, Andella's sister, says.

The awaiting hearse already has two bodies in it, both confirmed to have died of Ebola. 

The neighbours tell us Maritau may have contracted Ebola as well, since approximately eight others in this area have died from the virus.

Her young widower vehemently denies it, "No, not Ebola, not Ebola!" he insists, telling us she had epilepsy and that is what killed her.  

Only a lab test done on a swab taken from her cheek will confirm whether she had Ebola or not.  

It almost doesn't matter. Just the possibility that it might be Ebola means Maritau's family will likely be stigmatized in their community, regardless of the result they will get in five days.

Increased calls

A cemetery in Freetown will be Maritau's final resting spot.  A backhoe is clearing away garbage in an adjacent dump to make more room for bodies.

The remains of up to 75 people are buried here each day.

 Not all of the dead will have succumbed to Ebola. Virtually everyone who dies in Sierra Leone, regardless of the cause, is supposed to be given a medical funeral. There is simply no other option.

"If they continued to do traditional burials in Sierra Leone, where you wash the body, you touch the body, you kiss the body.

"If it's a confirmed case well, there could be 10 more right there," says Trevor Jessome, a Nova Scotian who oversees these burials and the cemetery for the charity Concern.

Trevor Jessome is a Canadian who oversees Ebola burials at the cemetery in Freetown, Sierra Leone for the charity Concern. (Carolyn Dunn / CBC)

Still, Dr. Bruce Aylward, a Canadian epidemiologist who is running the World Health Organization's response to Ebola, says too many people in Sierra Leone continue to reject the safe burials.

"There are still hidden burials or secret burials where people don't want to believe their loved ones died of Ebola, and they don't want to hand them over to a stranger to be buried," he says.   

So, it is strangely good news that the burial teams have been inundated with an increasing number of calls.

Since October, there have been no less than 4,000 people buried in the growing cemetery in Freetown.

On this day, the burial team lowers Maritau's body into the ground. Her grave is just like all the others, a mound of dirt with a wooden marker bearing her name.

Eventually, each grave will be properly finished and fitted with a permanent headstone.

Someday, perhaps when Ebola has been eradicated in Sierra Leone, this cemetery will become a memorial to the many thousands of lives it took.  

About the Author

Carolyn Dunn

National reporter

Carolyn Dunn is a longtime national reporter for CBC News. Her Canadian postings and assignments have taken her from St. John's to Calgary. She has reported extensively abroad including East, West and North Africa and has done several tours in Afghanistan. Have a story tip? Email carolyn.dunn@cbc.ca.

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