When Covid-19 started spreading across the globe, the World Health Organization issued strict burial guidelines in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. In Uganda, the national health department took over the burial of Covid-19 victims, interring them quickly and without adhering to proper cultural and religious procedures. In a country where death rituals form a central part of the grieving process, the undignified burials that took place during the pandemic have had severe psychological consequences for bereaved families and communities.
In the Global South and in Africa particularly, most development studies research concentrates on survival issues; economic needs and death/loss are generally discussed in relation to poverty or AIDS, while the few available bereavement studies focus on the grieving experiences of individuals or groups. However, injustices are also apparent in processes of grieving; unpacking the way in which grief is collectively and individually experienced is a necessary first step in addressing these injustices. Here, I show how the strict burial guidelines imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic were received in Uganda and why we should take note.
The many facets of death rituals
Death rituals, defined as “forms of expressions and connections performed by individuals, groups of people or communities in communication with the living-dead and the Supreme Being”, connect the dead and living in Africa. These rituals serve to mediate between the physical and spiritual worlds as the spirit of the deceased crosses between worlds. Many African families for example have a graveyard within the compound they live in because they believe that the dead remains part of the living family.
During death rituals, the bereaved family plays a direct role in preparing the body, washing the body and shaving the deceased’s head; domestic animals are also slaughtered for ritual purposes. Slaughtering a sheep, for example, is meant to please the ancestors so that they do not demand another death. And a death is communicated to the entire community as part of the ritual. A study of death rituals in Bugumba in Uganda shows how community members participate in death rituals once a large bonfire has been lit in the compound of the deceased to communicate bereavement to everyone in the community.
Other death-related rites and beliefs include a belief among the Ethur of northeastern Uganda in life after death, with the spirit of the dead person travelling to the realm of ‘Obanga’, as well as the common belief that the dead are spirits that can send curses if disturbed. Not performing death rituals would be considered one way of disturbing the dead. Similarly, in northern Uganda, a harmonious relationship between the living and dead is maintained to avoid ‘cen’, or vengeful spirits, by performing rituals.
Death rituals are considered so important that in cases where a bereaved family lacks adequate resources to perform crucial rituals, community members may contribute the required resources – something that is reciprocal. In studying bereavement, the concept of Ubuntu helps us to understand how cohesion and solidarity are maintained during and after burial through communal rituals and mourning. People travel from far away to participate in death rituals or attend funerals because death comes with misfortune for those who don’t participate in rituals. Paying close attention to the rituals while maintaining solidarity is a key healing factor from loss due to death.
The inability to say goodbye properly
Limitations on death rituals during the Covid-19 pandemic and the interment of Covid-19 victims by health authorities thus caused great distress in Uganda and beyond. During the pandemic, following protocols issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) to curb the spread of the virus, strict guidelines for burials were issued by the government of Uganda under its Ministry of Health. They included limiting the handling of the deceased body to health/burial teams only, wrapping the body in waterproof plastic bags before handing it over for burial, and preventing the public from seeing the body. Family members and other mourners had to stay two meters away from the body.
Many district governments came up with further burial guidelines that included the time at which the burial was to take place, the prohibition of death announcements over radios to prevent the burials from attracting crowds, and ensuring a burial would take no more than two hours. The burial team, dressed in white wellington boots, full plastic protective suits, goggles, face shields, and gloves besides preparing the body secured the burial sites, dug the graves, and conducted the burials. They were nicknamed ‘Angels’ because they appeared mystical to the community members.
Indignation and defiance
Besides leading to personal suffering, these clinical burials also led to political dissatisfaction. The burial teams were heckled and some attacked for not following burial traditions. This is because in Uganda, a dead person is very special to the community and must be treated with full respect during the entire burial process. Burials were considered undignified because of the rough handling of the dead and the mourning of those close to the deceased in isolation, when this would usually take place as part of the burial process. The departure from the traditional rituals led to psychosocial suffering (distress for bereaved families) that affecting healing, since no space was provided to express grief.
The community felt that the creation of distance between the deceased person and mourners, the wrapping of the body in artificial materials, and the handling of the body by seemingly alien entities did not ensure sufficient respect. The mystery and criticism was inspired by a deep distrust of the government during the pandemic, leading to allegations such as government’s burying of empty coffins and speculation that Covid-19 deaths concealed the trafficking of individuals.
“How could the spirit of the dead be reached and engaged when it is so trapped? Can the spirit be able to escape its ‘plastic prison’ and join the ancestors, or remain locked in captivity?” asks Brian Mukalazi in the Daily Monitor newspaper, describing how the burial of Covid-19 victims in a ‘scientific’ way angered the communities and led them to defying the burial guidelines by secretly exhuming the bodies to conduct decent burials. Communities such as the Budaka in eastern Uganda, the Buikwe, and the Palissa who resorted to this claimed they needed to ensure decent burials for their departed kin since their spirits had started disturbing their living relatives and some community members.
It is clear from the above that the suffering stemming from the loss of a loved one can be compounded by the lack of proper treatment of the deceased, in this case by the absence of proper burial rituals. However, these emotional impacts of injustices linked to bereavement processes on those close to the deceased and their communities are not yet sufficiently understood. It is crucial to address the psychosocial needs of those that lost loved ones to the pandemic. To prevent recurrence, and to help the bereaved find closure, academic research should focus more deliberately on cultural and psychological needs that arise during bereavement processes.
 McCarthy, J. R., Evans, R., Bowlby, S., & Wouango, J. (2020). Making sense of family deaths in urban Senegal: Diversities, contexts, and comparisons. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 82(2), 230-260.
 Baloyi, L., & Makobe-Rabothata, M. (2014). The African conception of death: A cultural implication.
 Umoh, D. S. (2012). Death is not natural: The African story.
 Haram, L. (2021). Bodily grief work meets Christian interiority: The Meru case. Death studies, 45(1), 51-60.
 Vokes, R. (2018). Before the call: Mobile phones, exchange relations, and social change in south-western Uganda. Ethnos, 83(2), 274-290.
 Wayland, E. J. (1931). Preliminary studies of the tribes of Karamoja. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 61, 187-230.
 Kembel, A. S. (2015). When the Dead Are Not Silent: The Investigation of Cultural Perspectives Concerning Improper Burials in Northern Uganda.
 As a theoretical perspective, Ubuntu is expressed in many languages in African communities but with the same meaning (Mugumbate and Chereni, 2020). Ubuntu caring solidarity translates to Uganda’s context through a saying which literally means “today it’s me, tomorrow someone else”.
 Lee, R., & Vaughan, M. (2008). Death and dying in the history of Africa since 1800. The Journal of African History, 49(3), 341-359.
 Lubega, M., Nakamya, C. S., Namugumya, E., & Najjemba, J. (2022). The effect of COVID-19 public health guidelines on the funeral traditions and burial rituals among the Baganda, a tribe in Central Uganda. PAMJ-One Health, 7(7).
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About the author:
Henry Okidi Okoth holds a MA Development Studies degree from the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Currently, he is a researcher and consultant with Collaborative Social Change. His research interests are death and bereavement studies from a decolonial perspective, marginalization and poverty, gender, conflict, and human rights.
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Patience AtangaOctober 6, 2022
Death is part of the transitions of life and the power community members hold in relation to their beliefs in rituals performed before, during and after burial must not be taken for granted. The manner in which deaths were handled during the covid-19 pandemic and the reactions of the bereaved and community members is a wake up call to authorities to review policies in relation to similar issues in the future to avoid psychological and other unforeseen effects.