Ebola is stronger than death. Even after killing its victim, the virus is alive and dangerous. People who die of Ebola have very high levels of the virus on their skin and bodily fluids. Religious and cultural customs that call for washing, shrouding and praying over the deceased are blamed for helping to spread the disease in West Africa where the death toll has surpassed 11,000 and continues to rise.
Last year, while helping the World Health Organization (WHO) battle the outbreak in Nigeria, Professor Dr. Aileen M. Marty was struck by the pressing need for effective laws governing the handling and disposition of human remains. After returning to South Florida, Marty, an infectious disease expert who teaches at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, teamed up with FIU Law Professor Eloisa C. Rodriguez-Dod and NSU Law Professor Elena Marty-Nelson to tackle the complex issue.
The result is a paper titled “The Intersection of Law, Religion, and Infectious Disease on the Handling and Disposition of Human Remains,” which they will present this weekend at the Annual Conference on Law, Religion, and Health in America at Harvard University.
“Existing laws, both domestically and internationally, are inconsistent and underdeveloped in ways that not only jeopardize public health,” said Marty, “but also disregard the wishes of the deceased and their survivors, and often conflict with religious beliefs regarding care of the body.”
It isn’t just a question of addressing certain burial rites that may propagate disease. “The final disposition of the body, beyond its handling, also presents significant concerns,” said Rodriguez-Dod. For example, cremation may be an ideal public health solution for Ebola victims, but “Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have traditions that disfavor cremation, or outright prohibit it,” she said.
And sometimes, even the best practice proves counter productive.
When Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf decreed in August 2014 that the bodies of Ebola victims were to be cremated, many people became so distressed that they kept their sick relatives home and, if the victim died, performed secret burials that led to even more infections.
“Although some organizations, including WHO, have written guidelines for culturally sensitive handling and disposition of human remains,” said Marty-Nelson. “Those guidelines may not be effective without a legal framework to ensure their implementation.”
The professors believe the lack of such legal guidelines should be of serious concern to policymakers in all countries, including the United States. Their paper suggests the need for a legal framework that educates communities to understand the public health issues and empowers them to address these issues in ways that respect religious beliefs. And they recommend that any solutions must combine legal, medical, moral, humanitarian and religious elements.