Funeral and Burial Practices in Liberia

Even during the Ebola outbreak, Liberians insisted on proper burials for their loved ones

Honoring loved ones who have died is very important for the Liberian people. Though there are many regions in Liberia that have differing customs, there are certain beliefs and practices that are employed by many Liberians across the West African country.

Liberia is a predominantly Christian nation with over 4.6 million people. Even though most Liberians are Christian, many still incorporate traditional funeral and burial practices when honoring loved ones. According to Dr. Gabriel Tait of Arkansas State University, “death is an extension of life” for Liberians.

Photo of Liberian children walking and wearing white clothes during a funeral

Children wear white to funerals in Liberia
Credit: npr.org

Much of what happens during the funeral and subsequent burial is meant to provide the loved one’s soul a safe voyage to the ancestral world. So it is important that families are able to conduct proper preparations and burial. It is vital that the soul does not make it back to the mortal world. When specific rituals are not completed, the soul of the person who has died will stay in a state of limbo, resting between the mortal world and afterlife.

A funeral celebration in Liberia can last for days or even weeks. Days of mourning will be followed by a wake and funeral. Anyone who had a meaningful relationship with the person who has died will travel long distances to pay their respects. Thus, the more people the person died knew, the longer the celebration will last. During the funeral itself, men typically wear suits; women wear black outfits or church robes and children wear white.

It is very important in Liberian culture to touch and cleanse the body of the person who has died. One funeral procession covered by NPR lasted an entire day. After close family members washed and dressed the body of the woman, the mourners walked two miles to the burial site. Trumpeters and drummers went ahead, playing and marching for the entirety of the procession.

Funerals in Liberia are not just the burying of a body.  They are a way to connect the loved one who has died with their ancestors. If the body is not properly taken care of, that can have negative implications on the still-living family members.

“So if things are going really badly — you lose your job, your child flunks out of school — among the things you’re trying to figure out is, have I offended somebody?” says Mary Moran, an anthropologist at Colgate University.”And that someone could be living or dead.”

One common practice in Liberia is to take photos of the loved one who has died and share those photos with family members. Liberia suffered through two civil wars during the past thirty years, and during that time many people had no idea what had happened to loved ones. So now, proof of death is necessary for at least some sense of closure.

Another common ritual is for close family members to cover up all reflective surfaces in the room where a loved one’s body is being held. This is meant to prevent the loved one’s spirit from roaming about, as it’s believed they are attracted to reflective surfaces.

Burial Practices Are Vital In Liberia

Employing proper funeral and burial practices is of the utmost importance in Liberian culture. This was particularly evident during the Ebola crisis of 2014. One of the reasons why the Ebola outbreak hit West Africa as hard as it did was because of the common practice of cleansing and touching the body of loved ones.

View of a Liberian gravesite during the Ebola outbreak

Even during the Ebola outbreak, Liberians were committed to proper burials
Credit: time.com

Ebola is contracted through bodily fluids, including sweat and saliva. Cremation is not a proper way of body disposal in Liberia, so even during the disease outbreak, many Liberians still wanted to practice traditional burial methods. This caused a rift between Liberians and healthcare workers.

During the outbreak, as reported by The Guardian, beds in Ebola treatment centers were empty because either the sick or their families wanted to stay home to ensure a proper burial. When people died from the disease, many times they were buried secretly.

This is because it’s important for Liberian families to know exactly where their loved one is buried. Families have “decoration days” during which they clean and decorate the gravesites of relatives. During the Ebola outbreak, the government would take it upon itself to cremate the bodies and dispose of the remains without disclosing the locations to families.

It’s clear that proper burials of loved ones in Liberia is one of the most important aspects of Liberian culture. Even during a deadly disease outbreak, the practices were still employed. This is clear evidence that burial in Liberia is a sacred act that cannot be overlooked.

Did you enjoy this post? If so, check out our article about the conflict between the Liberian people and the government during the Ebola outbreak. 

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A Small Town in Kansas Creates Christmas in September for a Little Boy

Citizens organized the event for Christian Risner, who is dying of cancer
Christmas in September

Christmas in September
Credit: Kelly Freund via the Wichita Eagle

A town in Kansas has come together to give a special gift to a dying little boy. Nearly all of the residents of the tiny town of Lebo created “Christmas in September” this past Sunday for 3-year-old Christian Risner, who was recently given less than three months to live.

Like most children, Christian loves Christmas. So when Kelly Freund, who lives in Lebo, learned of his prognosis, she decided to organize an event that would allow his family to celebrate the holiday together one last time.

Before the celebration, nearly 80 percent of the city’s 900 residents hung Christmas lights and put up holiday decorations, and local businesses joined in as well. Santa came with a bag full of presents for the little boy. Then the Risner family enjoyed a ride around the town in a horse drawn sleigh, finishing up at the Lebo Baptist Church, which hosted a community potluck. Attendees also bid at a silent auction that was organized to raise money for Christian’s medical care.

Even people from neighboring states came to join the fun and show their support. “People came from all over.… From Arkansas, really several different states,” said Freund.

Terminal ill boy given christmas in september

Credit: screen shot of video from oklahoma’s news

A Rare Cancer

Christian has rhabdoid kidney cancer, a rare and extremely aggressive tumor that is very difficult to treat. He was diagnosed a mere 18 months ago at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, where he received therapy to try to combat the disease. But despite his doctor’s best efforts, the tumor soon spread to his lungs.

After hearing the news of the cancer’s spread, Christian’s parents decided to forego more aggressive therapy and allow the boy to enjoy what was left of his life. “We wanted him to be like this, with hair, no NG [nasogastric] tube,” Christian’s father Josh Risner said in an interview with Oklahoma’s News Channel 4. “Living a normal 3-year-old’s life, enjoying time with his family.”

According to Kelly Freund, Christian enjoyed his Christmas celebration a great deal. He was in good spirits, and “running around and playing,” she said.

The people of Lebo are still fundraising to help Christian’s family pay their medical bills. If you would like to contribute, you can send a check payable to “Christian’s Crew” to:

Farmers State Bank of Aliceville
P.O. Box 66
Lebo, KS 66856

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“I don’t want to die without any scars.”

- Chuck Palahniuk
A man getting the most out of life

Credit: pexels.com

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You Don’t Need to be Brave

A cancer survivor reminds us that courage is no protection against terminal illness
Willow tree is not a symbol of being brave

Credit: cloudfront.net

I just read a wonderful story in the July 21, 2017, issue of Time. Written by cancer survivor Josh Friedman, it’s about an ordinary man who got a cancer diagnosis and didn’t take it particularly well. In fact, his behavior was the complete opposite of what our culture expects of people who’ve been told they have a life-limiting illness. He wasn’t “brave” or “courageous” in the face of terrible news. As he tells the story, he really wasn’t able to “face” the news at all. He behaved like a cross between a “chicken and an ostrich,” either quaking in terror or burying his head in the sand.

And the point his story makes so well is that all of that behavior was perfectly okay.

Americans are quintessential hero worshipers, and our heroes are almost always men and women who “fight the good fight.” We equate courage with goodness. And we believe — we truly believe — that true grit and an iron will can save us from nearly any plight.

Willow tree with buds over water is not usually a symbol of braveryJust look at the way we frame our narratives around cancer and other life-limiting illnesses. We don’t say someone is living with cancer; we say they’re “battling” it. We don’t say someone is suffering from heart disease; we say they’re “fighting” it. We don’t support people who are dealing with a terrifying reality with words that encourage introspection and self care. We tell them to “be brave” and “stay strong.” And though we do this with the very best intentions, it nonetheless reinforces the erroneous belief that being brave can buy you a cure. And absolutely nothing could be further from the truth.

You don’t battle cancer. You don’t fight it. If cancer wants you it sneaks into your room at night and just takes you. It doesn’t care if you’re John Wayne or John McCain ~ Josh Friedman

Putting on a brave face works for some people. I have a friend who had advanced throat cancer who “toughed out” six months of debilitating treatment because he completely believed that he could will his cancer away. And now, three years out from his original diagnosis and still in remission, he continues to believe the same thing.

But if he were right, lots of incredibly brave people I’ve known would still be alive today. And all of the so-called “cowards” like Josh Friedman would be dead.

The truth is, life and death just don’t work that way. The things that help you survive a serious illness are good medical and nursing care, good support systems, good genes and a whole heck of a lot of good luck. No one can think or believe or pray their illness away. To pretend that we can is tempting, certainly. It gives us the illusion of control. But it also places a tremendous burden on those who are ill.

Closeup of a new willow blossom shows isolation of dyingIt’s a truly terrible thing to tell someone who has a terminal illness to be brave. Sick people need comfort and support. They need us to be strong so they can be weak. They need us to say that that they are under no obligation to continue “fighting” a battle they can’t win, and that stopping treatment is neither “giving up” nor “giving in.” They need us to understand that dying is a terrifying journey. And most importantly, they need us to be brave enough to meet their fear with acceptance, compassion and love.

Because the truth is, there’s a Terminator out there for each one of us. But when it finally finds you has nothing to do with how fast you run, or how tough you are, or how good a person you’ve been ~ Josh Friedman

About Kathleen

Each month Kathleen Clohessy, R.N., offers a new perspective on living with a terminal illness. Kathleen comes to SevenPonds with 25 years experience as a registered nurse caring for families and children facing life-threatening illness. She began her career in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Nassau County Medical Center in New York. After relocating to California, she spent 15 years as an R.N. and Assistant Nurse Manager at the Pediatric Oncology & Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at Lucille Salter Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. She uses her knowledge and expertise to enlighten our readers about the challenges associated with chronic illness and its effects on family relationships.

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Monday Hearts for Madalene

Page Hodel creates beautiful hearts as a tribute to enduring love
handmade heart on aged wood

Nothing can make my love for you fade

It’s an honor for SevenPonds to share with our readers the story of the Monday Hearts for Madalene project, a true account of the power of enduring love.The project began in 2005, when Page Hodel first met Madalene Rodriguez and fell “instantly, dizzyingly in love with her.” Soon afterwards, Page began leaving handmade hearts on Madalene’s doorstep every Monday.  

“To start her week with a visual reminder of our beautiful love.”

Just seven months later, Madalene was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died on June 20th, 2006. To remember her, Page continues to make a heart every Monday in celebration of her life.

To learn more about Page and the Monday Hearts for Madalene Project, please visit her website, Monday Hearts for Madalene

See more Monday Hearts for Madalene here.

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Talking About Dying with Your Parents is Difficult

When they start the conversation themselves, it’s even harder
My mom the day we were talking about dying

My wonderfully active 86-year-old mom at home in Florida

I suppose few people understand how important talking about dying with their parents as much as I do. As the founder of SevenPonds, I have been deeply into the topic of death almost every day for the past six years. And one of the topics we write about a lot is how to start that “death” conversation with your parents.

On one hand, my 88-year-old dad is happy to discuss the topic. But my mom, who is 86, has been resistant to talking about it–to my complete surprise! And truthfully, even with all my knowledge, it hasn’t been easy for me either.

Then last winter, when I visited my parents in Florida for the holidays, I surprised my mom by announcing we would play a game. The game was “Go Wish” cards, and they were like a miracle. My mom began talking about her end of life wishes — at least that specific day.

But then last week I found myself on the phone with her. We were chatting about the usual things, when suddenly out of the blue she said, “Just the other day, your father and I were discussing which of us will go first.” It was like the floodgates opened. Not only was she talking about dying — but she brought it up so casually! I was utterly stunned.

All of our emotions that impact us as we are talking about dying

Credit: whatworks.site

Suddenly the shoe was on the other foot. Her words were so shocking for me that I failed to actually register the rest of of what she said. Hearing my mom talking about dying brought the fact that she was really going to die someday to life for me. And it set me spinning emotionally.

I worked so hard to get her to talk. But when she did, I was not ready to hear it. Needless to say, I was frustrated with myself.

I was surprised that my mother’s statement hit me so intensely. But, truth be told, each of us experiences a wide range of emotions, and we’re never sure what will come up or when. In fact, experts are starting to map our emotions and analyze how they impact us as as we die.

Emotions are also beginning to have a place in discussions about our hospital systems, as evidenced by the upcoming Endwell Symposium in San Francisco. Billed as a “gathering of design, tech, health care and activist communities with the goal of generating human-centered, interdisciplinary innovation for the end of life experience” it points to a new willingness to treat life-limiting illness holistically, with as much attention to a person’s quality of life as their physical state.

No one said talking about death and dying was easy. Thankfully, our culture is now beginning to become comfortable with it. But no matter how much we talk, death and dying will always be an emotionally difficult part of life. As feeling human beings, each of us will ultimately have to wrangle with our own emotions around loss.

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