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Health Team

'It was so abrupt': COVID-19 upends burial rites in Cameroon

Posted October 14, 2020 6:45 a.m. EDT

— The commotion broke out in the cemetery after dark, flashlights flickering wildly. Curious, neighbors stumbled upon a dispute between a grieving family and Cameroon's security forces.

The family wanted to exhume their father's body from the Douala cemetery because the proper burial rites had not been carried out amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

To send him to the afterlife this way, his children said, would seal not only his fate but theirs, too.

In Cameroon, where more than 400 people have died from the coronavirus, health officials have been repeatedly confronted by bereaved family members who want to adhere to tradition despite concerns that such practices further spread the virus.

“What is clear is that there has been a lot of resistance,” said Dr. Eric Tandi with Cameroon's health ministry.

The protests are a testament to the strong influence that ancestors still play in people's daily lives in this Central African nation, particularly within the traditional Bantu communities in western Cameroon.

Anthropology professor Paul Nchoji Nkwi recalled how one of his students at the University of Yaounde once failed an exam and then insisted that the only way he'd know why would be by going home to Western province.

“He said, ‘I fear it comes from my grandmother who died so many years ago and I didn’t perform the rituals,'" the professor said.

Bantu communities believe that deaths must be celebrated just as births and marriages are. Funerals are typically held on Fridays and involve “a lot of food, a lot of people weeping, lots of drinks and people massively attending,” Nkwi said.

“It is a celebration of the life of this person who is now leaving the stage with applause," he said. “COVID-19 has stopped that process.”

Health officials, fearing the large gatherings during the pandemic, initially decreed that all burials would be carried out by public undertakers with fewer than 10 immediate family members present.

Ultimately, though, that rule had to be relaxed. Since June, relatives have been allowed to view the bodies of loved ones and perform traditional rites so long as they keep at a distance and do not touch the corpse.

Some find that's not enough.

Relatives of one victim, Suinfo Samuel Wembe, launched a legal battle in Douala in hopes of gaining the right to exhume his body and bury it according to tradition in the Bafoussam chiefdom in western Cameroon.

A judge, though, said that can only take place one year after the COVID-19 pandemic is declared over.

Hospital officials said Wembe died of complications from the virus in mid-April.

The rules of traditional secret societies dictate funeral rites for notables like him, but none were followed, nephew Prince Constantin Size said.

"It feels like the sky has fallen on us,” he says.

Instead, Wembe's body was brought to a public morgue, where no relatives were able to visit. Hours later, he was hastily buried in a public cemetery.

“It was so abrupt, so psychologically it is hard to accept,” Size said.

According to tradition, Wembe should have been buried in his home village in Western province, not in the city of Douala, where he lived.

His family can only wait, and still does not consider him buried.

“Even if it takes (the World Health Organization) a decade to declare COVID-19 eradicated, we still consider that his body is in the morgue until the day his body is brought back home," Size said.

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