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At a glance: Liberia

A safe burial for an Ebola victim in Liberia

By Helene Sandbu Ryeng

© UNICEF Liberia/2015/Ryeng
The cemetery on Disco Hill outside Monrovia, Liberia. More than 350 Ebola victims have been buried here safely since the cemetery opened in December 2014.

MONROVIA, Liberia, 9 February 2015 – “Drive along the Robertsfield highway past Tower Hill, make a sharp right turn after you pass Ambush Curve, and proceed a few hundred metres until you reach Disco Hill. It’s close to smell no taste.”

These are the directions to Liberia’s newest cemetery, one in which more than 350 people have been buried in a dignified – and safe – way.

First steps along a final journey

At the tent morgue, three beds covered in tarpaulin and a system of lowering ropes await a delivery. A white truck bearing the sign of the Liberian Red Cross Society approaches. A team of six clad in white head-to-toe protection kits, three layers of gloves, thick rubber boots and goggles jump out of the truck. They gently hoist the special bag that holds the latest victim of Ebola, a 30-year-old man, into the morgue, placing the body on one of the beds. Gloved hands straighten the folds in the bag.

Safe and dignified burials

The practice of burying the dead in consecrated soil is deeply rooted in Liberian culture. But burial rituals carry great risk of spreading Ebola from the dead to the living. 

© UNICEF Liberia/2015/Ryeng
A member of the burial team is assisted putting on personnel protection equipment, in preparation for moving bodies from the waiting truck to the tented morgue.

During the peak of the outbreak, the Government of Liberia decreed that all dead bodies should be cremated because of both lack of space and risk of transmission of the virus.

The number of clandestine burials rose – including of victims of Ebola, as did transmission of the virus. Relatives who washed and dressed bodies according to traditional practices were infected by the deadly disease.

The only way to put a stop to the practice of hiding bodies and burying them in secret was to start burying the dead again, openly, in a safe, controlled way. The Government of Liberia decided the dead should be buried by specially trained burial teams. The community of Disco Hill donated a parcel of land as a final resting place.

Spreading the word

Having a safe place to bury the dead was a start. However, absolutely critical to the safe burial process is raising awareness about how the disease is spread, and ensuring that families make the all-important call to health facilities when someone is sick or has died.

© UNICEF Liberia/2015/Ryeng
A burial team carries a body to its final resting place. A sprayer walks behind the team to spray the ground they’ve walked on.

UNICEF has co-led a process that has helped develop messages on the importance of calling for assistance if someone dies, the need for safe burials – and how and when safe burials take place.

UNICEF has supported social mobilization workers, who bring a discussion card door to door, across the country, to raise awareness. Two targeted radio dramas focusing on safe burials developed by UNICEF are being aired on radio stations.

The efforts are working. More and more families are calling the burial team when someone dies, helping interrupt the transmission of Ebola through burial ritual. Secret burials reportedly still take place. UNICEF is therefore continuing to promote safe burial.

Journey’s end, on Disco Hill

The family is escorted from a waiting area under a pergola to a freshly dug grave. An elderly man sobs quietly, holding the shoulder of a woman who flails her arms and wails. Other family members stand around the grave as the burial team carry the body bag by its handles and carefully carry it to the grave. One member of the team follows them and sprays the ground they’ve walked on with chlorine.

The team gently lower the body into the ground and step back to allow the family some time alone in their bereavement. Later on, another team will fill in the grave.

A safe burial has ended. The family have laid to rest their loved one, and the virus that killed him is blocked from attacking them in their grief. 



UNICEF Photography: On Ebola's frontlines


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