KAMPALA – An analysis of recent media reports in Uganda, especially from the districts of Budaka, Pallisa and Buikwe, has revealed multiple cases involving relatives of people suspected to have succumbed to Covid-19 exhuming their bodies at night in order to accord them “decent and proper burial rites”.
Similar concerns have been raised in many other African countries and societies. For instance, in South Africa, as a way of enforcing the Covid-19 regulations, burials have also been modified from traditional ones to those with limited crowds, with burial teams donned in hazmat suits and with bodies wrapped (or “trapped”) in plastic bags.
Such “scientific” burials have enraged many families, especially those in rural communities. In turn, they are defying the government and are secretly exhuming the bodies. Their argument is: How could the spirit of the dead be reached and engaged when it is so trapped? Can the spirit be able to escape its ‘plastic prison’ and join the ancestors, or remain locked in captivity?
Some have expressed fear that these new burial rules have posed serious spiritual consequences for their families. They claim that, in their dreams, they receive messages from the ancestors warning of the suffocation and entrapment of their spirits in the plastic body bags. Thus, the need for exhuming the bodies, removing the plastics and reburying them.
In Kenya, relatives of a man suspected to have died from Covid-19 sued the government and asked that his hurriedly-buried body be exhumed and then re-buried with proper traditional rites. They complained that the body of their loved one was buried in a shallow grave wrapped in a plastic bag, contrary to their Luo customs and had caused stigma in their village.
In her judgment, the learned judge ruled that, given the health hazards involved, it was not advisable to exhume the body, but ordered that the grave site be cemented. Also, she stated that “One does not cease being a human once dead; only the state of life is altered. … I conclude that indeed the dead have rights”.
Most communities in Africa believe in life after death. Consequently, burial practices are given a lot of significance as they are perceived as crucial steps in transitioning from the world of the living to the spiritual world. It is believed that a properly conducted funeral helps the dead to relocate to the world of the dead where they live a similar life to those on earth and continue to participate in affairs on earth.
The fact is, there are so many rituals and social behaviours surrounding death, mourning and burial in the African society. Some cultures prepare for burial by washing, kissing and dressing the corpse. For others, in order to access the last wishes of the dying, they choose not to take them to hospital for medical attention. Of course, all these practices represent a considerable infection risk for Covid-19.
Many believe that if these rituals are not performed in the prescribed manner, or crucial steps are missed, the deceased would be condemned to wander eternally and would return to torment their relatives. This is even feared more than the Covid-19 infections because the angry spirits could cast spells on their descendants.
As Africa’s health systems continue to buckle under the onslaught of Covid-19, the recent trends in burial practices have demonstrated that the use of scientific methods alone without a holistic consideration of other contextual factors is not sufficient to control the disease. Governments should consider how Covid-19 plays into the cultures of the societies affected.
Mr. Mukalazi Brian is the Country Director of Every Child Ministries Uganda.