In Liberia, they call it Decoration Day, a time of pain, celebration and memory when people visit graveyards to honor their dead, cleaning the graves, whitewashing them or painting them in bright colors.
But Wednesday, the first Decoration Day since the main brunt of the recent Ebola epidemic hit Liberia last year, was heartbreaking, not just because of the loss of 4,117 Liberian lives, but also because in most cases there is no grave to decorate.
Cremation, a practice so alien here as to be almost unthinkable, was widely used during the Ebola epidemic, compounding the grief for many families. In Liberian society, death demands a “decent burial” — and a body is required.
Early in the crisis, suspicions about cremation led people to hide bodies, to try to have them buried. Government officials reported that some Liberians bought fake death certificates on the black market, showing a cause of death other than Ebola. That allowed them to bring the bodies of loved ones to funeral parlors for burial.
Authorities turned to cremation in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital and largest city, because people were dying by the hundreds each week at the height of the crisis — and the bodies of Ebola victims are so contagious that handling them is extremely dangerous. Some neighborhoods rejected burials of Ebola victims nearby.