“What the mind doesn’t understand, it worships or fears.”
My grandmother Beth was buried in the Parkinson plot right over the Utah border in the safety of Idaho, where strong pine trees with deep roots line one side of the graveyard. Buried next to her is her infant daughter who died in 1961 and on another row is my great-great-great grandfather, Samuel Rose Parkinson, sunk next to his three wives. I come from the second wife, they have told me.
I attended her viewing a few hours before lowering her into her grave, where she came to rest in “a pine box”, just like she requested. Her hair was unusually straight and framed her large eyes, closed and lifeless above waxen cheekbones. My relatives and I took turns peering into the coffin to visually record a final image of our beloved Beth. Some leaned over and kissed her face or touched her hardworking hands. After a family prayer, the lid was closed and she was out of sight.
After suffering a debilitating accident then surviving the follow-up surgery, she died of a pulmonary embolism during the recovery stage. Nobody questioned why she died. A blocked artery in the lung is dangerous, especially for an 89 year old. Her passing was considered unfortunate, yet uncomplicated. She died just two days before I left Liberia for good.
What We Can See
Everything we know about death is what we observe while we are living. We tend to view life as a cycle, powered by time. As a result, baby deaths seem to be more tragic than grandmother deaths. The commonality that the old die before the young has led some societies to believe that an early and accidental death is the work of malignant spirits who exist in a hidden world. As such, the loss of a young life requires an explanation, and depending on where you live, what you can explain is just as plausible as what you cannot.
I lived in Liberia for one year and worked for a development project aimed at helping Liberian subsistence farmers become small entrepreneurs. Along the way, I traveled some of the country and met many people from a variety of tribes, young and old, men and women. I asked a lot of questions about their beliefs and mostly listened to what the people had to say.
Everyone in Liberia agrees: death is always a lurking possibility. Malaria is something of a badge of honor. It’s a character-building experience, one that all Liberians have experienced time and time again. Sometimes, loved ones die, but the reason doesn’t always have to do with the mosquito-carrier. Death itself is not always a cause for concern. Rather so-called death warnings are much more frightening. These warnings may appear in the way of a certain type of bird squawks at night, in dreams or through voices heard in the heads of the living. Why these warnings exist is what concerns people. Diseases and accidents are merely vehicles to the spirit world, but they are not necessarily the root causes of death.
By May, the Ebola death toll reached 200, and the lack of basic healthcare facilities and a distrusted and wholly incompetent government were serious issues. By August the death toll had doubled and the outlook was grim. At some point, I realized that perhaps everything that is invisible represented the country’s inability to control the infection.
On a Thursday night in early May, I woke to pounding drums. Just beyond my window, men and women bellowed deep chants and screamed throughout the night. Near dawn, the noise subsided, and I hoped the crowd’s collective inebriation would keep the rowdy funeral asleep for the rest of Friday. But I miscalculated the importance of passage rites, the acts that detach the dead from the living. These traditions are critical and no detail is overlooked, because if anything is done wrong the deceased could return, or worse, never leave! And then all forthcoming misfortunes will be blamed on a hasty funeral, a botched burial or a lack of respect.
As I would learn first hand through the walls of my apartment, death and mourning annihilate all forms of silence. By 10:30am, the sound of the funeral was in full swing wailing with the loud and jarring traditional Bassa music, West African bible pop music and Rihanna. My wife was losing her mind. Only the baby could make any sense of the noise, moving back and forth to the music with a smile.
In Liberia, the dead are never really dead. Even after the body ceases to breath, the spirit is still close enough to hear what we say and know what we do. That person is only almost dead, or nearly gone. The mourners are compelled to make as much noise as possible. Since sorrow is measured in decibels, those who do not weep and wail violently enough risk feeling conspicuously guilty in the public’s eye or worse are accused of witchery.
Traditionally, the villagers fire guns and beat drums. The racket signifies to those far and wide that somebody has died and the community should put on their best dress to pay their respect. Funerals are community affairs, and the louder and longer it continues, the more bereavement is displayed. When Liberia came into the modern era, Chinese boom boxes and stereos complemented the village’s noise making capabilities. Today, the DJ and recorded music play an ever important role in the tribe’s traditions.
All over the jungle, people die and funerals happen. Death is outwardly symbolic, so then is the response, which is sure to be seen by all, both the visible and invisible.
While the spirit is leaving the body, the corpse must be washed by family members. After the washing, cane juice or palm wine is poured into the deceased’s mouth and rubbed over the body. Often, an object is left in the hand—a favorite weapon, seed rice and perhaps hot pepper powder used to throw into the eyes of the evil spirits he may face. Others remove organs from the dead body, some are eaten, others used as medicine. The organs of a chief or elder are especially powerful for medicinal concoctions.
Once the body has been prepared, relatives, friends and neighbors come to see the body and leave kola nuts as an offering. The kola nut represents something positive, like friendship and prosperity. It’s a peace offering, one that will not only shield them from apparent curses, but also by upholding tradition, improve their standing within society.
In some tribes, they break clay pots and throw the shards out in front of the house. Some women shave their heads, others wear their hair down for weeks at a time. A new widow may stay indoors for months, out of sight, waited on by other widows. Other family members tie cotton cords around their necks. This protects them from death and from being taken to the spirit world with the deceased.
Next door, the funeral that had begun on Thursday stretched to Saturday morning. Sleepless and unnerved, I decided to pay a visit to the neighbors. I approached the crowd of drowsy mourners sitting around on wooden stools. Under a miniature hut, sat the DJ, half asleep in front of a single speaker. I asked who was the elder.
“I am a neighbor and very sorry for your dead. But two nights and we neighbors cannot sleep. Haven’t you mourned long enough already?”
“We all cry plenty at a death. If we don cry, we cannot let go,” the old man said to me. “Tonight we all go home.”
The DJ said he would be packing up the speaker around 6pm. Before I left, he made it clear that he was not part of the Bassa tribe, but for 45 dollars, the death was a good gig.
Most Liberia’s four million live in the bush, in isolated communities surrounded by endless forests that have little access to hospitals and medicine. The leading cause of death in Liberia is malaria followed by diarrhea and acute respiratory infection, which triggers pneumonia. In one year, I experienced all three.
As Liberia’s urban population grows, so does access to treatment for these illnesses and the public’s understanding of them. In the bush, however, medicine is simply too far away, and a death caused by severe diarrhea or pneumonia is quickly chalked up to sorcery.
Since each death needs an explanation, witches are a common recourse. A witch may get a trial, but that usually comes too late for the accused. At the trial, a spleen or some other organ is dropped in a bucket of water, and if it floats, the victim was innocent, which is of little consolation. A witch’s curse is feared as it may require a ritualistic sacrifice of a child or young adult to break. The fear of being accused only strengthens the forest dweller’s superstitious traditions.
Now imagine how, under these conditions, the current Ebola outbreak spreads in the Liberian bush. For many, Ebola became known as an illness transmitted by outsiders, i.e. white people. Ebola denial is still rife today. It was obvious that Ebola appeared around the same time as the very visible field doctors investigating cases. The ‘witch’ wears hazmat gear, carries a suitcase with many elaborate gadgets and drives a Landcruiser. He then picks up the deceased family member, throws the body into the back of truck and never returns. Traditions are not followed. The dead are not prepared or properly mourned. How can this result in anything but misfortune? Consequently, Instead of isolating the sick and deceased and reporting new cases, Liberians hide and shield their loved ones from doctors and nurses.
Death is tragic in any form, whether it is caused by a pulmonary embolism a virus or a bullet. For Liberians, the indigenous brand of supernatural causality governing life, death, the visible universe and all the mysteries therein makes death avoidable. Among the most superstitious, this belief is irrefutable, and fueled by man’s basic needs and troubles.