Facing Death Six Days a Week

How Liberia’s burial teams stopped the dead from harming those they loved

What do you say to a mother who just lost her child?

To a neighbor who just lost her best friend? How do you comfort the grieving as you put the body of a loved one in a black bag and load it into a pickup truck?

In Liberia, when the Ebola outbreak was at its height in the fall of 2014, Varbah Dolley faced these questions six days a week.

Varbah is tough—like most Liberian women who have lived through two civil wars. But recently, she has fought a different war, against an enemy she couldn’t see.

Varbah is a member of a Liberian Red Cross burial team.

Her job, helping communities safely and carefully bury their dead, is one of the most important in stopping the spread of Ebola.

It is also one of the most dangerous.


From the moment someone who has contracted the Ebola virus starts showing symptoms, their body fluids are highly contagious.

After death, their body is even more contagious.

In order to stem the spread of Ebola in West Africa, it was essential to train and equip professional teams to safely and respectfully bury the dead.

Liberian customs made this difficult.

Dead bodies are typically washed and dressed by multiple people before being carried to a grave. Although these rituals help Liberians grieve, they also present ripe opportunities for the virus to spread.

As part of the U.S. Government’s Ebola response effort, USAID mobilized burial teams across the country to provide safe disposal of contagious bodies, even when it meant a painful separation from tradition.

When the epidemic was on the rise, every dead body in the country was considered an Ebola body.

That meant every corpse was to be taken and treated as such so as to not to infect the victim’s family, friends and neighbors.

When Varbah arrived at a village where someone had died, it was her job to interview the family and neighbors of the deceased to determine what happened, track down contacts, and provide basic information on Ebola while her team removed the body.

Deeply distrustful, families often resisted parting with their loved ones.

Varbah’s team responded to reports of deaths every morning, often dispatching to communities deep in rural Liberia.

One day in September 2014, her team traveled for more than two hours over rough, dirt terrain to reach Arthington, hoping to recover and remove the body of an Ebola victim before it infected anyone around it.

Varbah climbed out of a mud-splattered jeep and calmly walked over to a crowd with her notebook and pen. She and her team jotted down as much information as possible for her daily report.

“I know what you are going through. But take courage,” she counseled the family of 6-year-old Phelica as they described the events leading up to the little girl’s death.

Phelica became inexplicably sick while playing outside. Her mother carried her to multiple hospitals for treatment before finding one that would test her.

After several days, the doctor said she would not survive—Phelica died on the way home.


Like many in West Africa, especially at the beginning of the outbreak, Phelica’s family was suspicious. Misinformation swirled around communities. No one had seen an Ebola epidemic like this before. Many doubted it was real. Conspiracy theories abounded.

No matter how difficult, Varbah’s job was to earn their trust, ally their suspicions, and come away with the body.

That day, onlookers gathered to watch the burial teams as they suited up in foreign-looking suits, disappearing into Phelica’s house and reemerging with a black bag that carried the little girl’s body.

The Ebola outbreak hadn’t felt real to the villagers until now.

As men in white spacesuits walked through their town with a body-filled bag, a mother wailed, “My baby, O. My baby, O.”

All of a sudden, numbers had names. Tears flowed. Relatives fell to the ground. Hands flailed.

The team laid Phelica’s little body in the back of a dark green pickup truck, and drove away.

At the height of the crisis, it was hard to picture Ebola losing steam.

But by May 2015, Liberia had reached zero new cases, in part, thanks to the work of selfless humanitarians like Varbah.

She and her Red Cross colleagues may have had the hardest job of all. She faced death—as well as the suspicion and grief of survivors—six days a week in order to prevent the dead from hurting the ones they loved.

Why did she apply for such a difficult, dangerous position? “I do this for my country,” she said.

About this story

Liberia’s first case of Ebola was confirmed in March 2014. By August, more than 150 new cases were reported each week, and the government declared a state of emergency.

A person infected with Ebola is most contagious after death, and customary rituals to prepare bodies for burial greatly contributed to the spread of the virus early on. At one point, as many as one in five Ebola infections occurred as a result of unsafe burials, according to the World Health Organization.

USAID and the NGO Global Communities provided burial-team support activities in all 15 counties of Liberia and engaged with communities to share information on proper hygiene practices and preventing transmission through workshops, community meetings and radio campaigns. In total, USAID supported nearly 200 burial teams, which, while ensuring their own safety, were able to respect local customs and conduct dignified Christian and Muslim ceremonies.

The focus on safe and dignified burials in the Ebola response helped stem the outbreak in Liberia. With support from USAID and the global community, humanitarian workers continue to restore life to normalcy and rebuild and strengthen Liberia’s health system.

Photos by Morgana Wingard and Adam Parr for USAID. Video by Pigs Fly Media.