Neglecting the Dead in Times of Epidemics

Translated by Christos Lynteris*

“No.” The response of the French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to a viewer of the Journal de 20h programme of the France 2 TV channel was indeed “terrible to hear.” No, she could not attend the funeral of her friend, who had passed away two days earlier. It was now forbidden by the law. Albeit “very harsh”, travel restrictions against COVID-19 announced by the French President the day before also applied to the most pressing social obligations, including attending funerals of loved ones. What is more, following the decree signed on March 15, participation in funerals held in a place of worship would be limited to twenty people, while crematoria were encouraged by the local authorities to reserve ceremonies for first-degree relatives. It all seemed quite cruel, and was definitely unprecedented: to be suddenly forbidden to pay tribute to the dead, and above all, to be excluded from a very limited circle of relatives who were authorized to do so.  

The decision was soon put into action: in Falaise, Calvados, four people were fined by the gendarmerie as they returned from the funeral of their relative, for unjustified breach of the confinement regulations.[1] The press and the social media became inundated with testimonies of the sadness of those forced to resign themselves to letting a loved one be buried without being present by their side. Even for parents, who are allowed to participate, gestures of affection are prohibited, as is touching the coffin or making a eulogy. Even more strikingly, an article in Le Monde from March 21 reports that people who die as a result of COVID-19 are to be subjected to special treatment, which does not admit the presence of parents, nor allows the observation of customary religious rites. A funeral parlour employee called to tend to the corpse of an infected person in a care home testified that “mortuary care is prohibited, the body is wrapped in a waterproof, disinfected bag and is then placed in a second body bag which is put directly inside the coffin. To a family who had planned a gathering with eulogies, I had to announce that everything had to be cancelled.”[2]  

Of course, France is not the only place where such measures have been applied, far from it. In Bergamo, Italy, where the epidemic has hit the hardest, we have seen images of stacked coffins, videos of funerary processions transformed into military convoys, which transport manu militari supernumerary corpses to nearby crematoria. Even more than in France, funerary care is forbidden in Italy, including placing objects in the deceased’s grave, as is the participation of the deceased’s family in the burial when the former has died of an infection. Two journalists writing for The Guardian, have claimed that 2,900 persons who died on March 18 of COVID-19 in Italy had been buried or cremated “without ceremony”.[3] The epidemic, concludes an article on the BBC News website, denies dignity to the dead, pure and simple.[4] Some communities manage to find a way around restrictions. In Ireland, where the tradition of wakes is very much alive, a parish circumvented the law to pay tributes to a woman who died during the epidemic. Forbidden from performing a wake and gathering at the church, the parishioners formed a silent line of honour along the road, a meter apart from each other, over the entire two kilometres that separated the church from the graveyard. However, in most other places, peoples’ attitude appears to be more that of wounded resignation – and everyone is expecting to see in the years to come the wounds caused by these tainted or outright banned ceremonies.  

Faced with such a situation, we would like to be able to turn to history, or to anthropology, so as to find out if this abnormality that we are experiencing today is not, after all, normal enough, or, in any case, if there are precedents for this kind of measures and interdictions. Has it always been this way, in similar cases? Are we, in fact, always and everywhere led to neglect our dead in times of epidemics?  

A quick look at the darkest episodes of the history of health seems to be immediately able to convince us of two things: on the one hand, that, yes, the usual funerary rituals tend to be suspended when the risk of a deadly contagion hovers over society, and, on the other hand, that things could be much more serious than this. One of the first descriptions of a devastating epidemic known in Europe, is that by the Greek historian Thucydides, given at the end of the fifth century BC, on the so-called “plague of Athens”.  

“The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other […]. All the funeral ceremonies which used to be observed were now disorganized, and they buried the dead as best as they could. Many people, lacking the necessary means of burial because so many deaths had already occurred in their households, adopted the most shameless methods. They would arrive first at a funeral pyre that had been made by others, put their own dead upon it and set it alight; or, finding another pyre burning, they would throw the corpse that they were carrying on top of the other one and go away.”[5]  

The description of Thucydides and the moral warning it sets out will remain anchored in European imagination, reemerging in response to the plagues that will traverse Eurasia on several occasions throughout the medieval and early modern era; we find explicit echoes of this in Boccaccio at the very beginning of his Decameron. No rule would anymore apply as soon as the sanctity of the dead was suspended: the neglect of the dead would be the first step towards anomy, if not the hallmark of it. In situations as extreme as a plague epidemic, if these authors are to be believed, it would not really be that public authorities would have to try to enforce the reform of funerary practices, so as to keep people away from the dead, while they themselves would be unable to detach themselves, therefore risking their health. By contrast, the opposite would occur: the panicked population would be far too happy to get rid of their infected parents, and everyone would seek the most expeditious and shameful means, in a disorder that would be burlesque if it were not so excruciating, to shed the burden and the peril that those infected relatives would represent.  

Yet, history and anthropology in fact suggest that the reality of caring for the dead in an epidemic is far more ambiguous than that. On the one hand, because there are reasons to doubt the veracity of the description of Thucydides; in any case, the reaction to plagues, even in their most deadly and apocalyptic manifestations, has not always been to get rid of the dead at all costs. In his monumental opus on the history of mortuary rites in Europe and the United States, Thomas W. Laqueur reports on archaeological excavations of what is known to be a mass grave for the victims of the plague of 1348-1349, in a village in England. While one would have expected piles of corpses stacked up in a disorderly manner, it was on the contrary a regular order of well-aligned corpses that was brought to light by the excavations, with the dead being carefully oriented so as to be able to rise at the Last Judgment, and often even accompanied by “small coins and other signs of caring”.[6]  

But if the question of attachment to the care of the dead in times of epidemics is more complex, it is in fact mainly because this attachment is apparently more variable than one might have thought. This is shown in the excellent volume published in 2018 by two anthropologists, Christos Lynteris and Nicholas Evans, on the management of post-mortem contagion throughout history and across human societies.[7] It would appear that the “epidemic corpse” has been the subject of different treatments according to place and period; and if we very rarely find descriptions of populations suddenly deciding spontaneously, as in Thucydides, to suspend all respect for the remains of their loved ones, we do, however, often find mention of conflicts surrounding the question of funerals in epidemic times. One of the contributors to the volume, Samuel Cohn Jr., even makes the curious observation that certain epidemics provoke violence, panics and waves of moral indignation around the treatment of infected corpses, while others not at all.  

Professor Cohn indeed stresses that cholera outbreaks in Europe regularly resulted in popular revolts, as people could not stand having their loved ones dying in isolation in the hospital, and being buried in secret, without receiving care or without their death being even directly ascertained by the family. In Ireland and England at the beginning of the 1830s, rumours circulated that patients in working-class neighbourhoods were being buried alive by doctors in “diabolical” rituals, or that their organs were being harvested in order to craft remedies for the disease, for the benefit of the rich who would thus be preserved from it. The convoys carrying sealed coffins were stopped by the furious population, who demanded to check the state of the enclosed corpse; when it was found to be damaged or incomplete, as was the case, for example, in Manchester in 1832, hospitals were ransacked and doctors pelted. Throughout the nineteenth century and until the beginning of the twentieth, there occurred similar cases of popular revolts in the face of what was deemed the unworthy treatment of infected corpses, especially in colonial contexts where imperial administrations felt justified in “hygienically” disposing the dead in the case of epidemics, accusing (often wrongly) more or less imaginary “local customs” of promoting the spread of the virus, as Christos Lynteris shows with reference to Hong Kong in the first decades of the twentieth century.  

The latest case is extremely recent, as it dates from the Ebola epidemic of 2014-2016, which caused thousands of deaths in several countries in West Africa (mainly in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria). The international organizations that intervened on the ground, with the mandate of the national governments, had to face a situation of sanitary catastrophe requiring urgent measures. Among these, the adoption of an exceptional protocol regarding the treatment of corpses possibly infected with the virus appeared crucial, given the contagious nature of the latter. Corpses were therefore removed from families to be buried without ceremony, while those who died in the Ebola Treatment Centres located near the worst-affected cities were quickly buried in anonymous tombs, without the families even being informed of their death.[8] Here again, the confidential treatment of corpses and the prescription to neglect one’s dead gave rise to violence against health personnel.  

Finally, faced with the threat of uprisings, in 2014, the WHO imposed on all agents intervening on the ground a charter aiming to “conduct safe and dignified burial of a patient who has died from suspected or confirmed Ebola or Marburg virus disease”.[9] At each stage of the process, the agents were requested to inform the family of the deceased and to seek to establish with their representatives the best version of the health protocol, the one that most respected the family’s desires and religious convictions. In Guinea in 2014, as in Ireland, India or Hong Kong throughout the nineteenth century, the important thing for bereaved families always seemed to be being able to ascertain the death of the parent before his or her funeral treatment was started. It was the removal of this possibility of ensuring that the dead person is dead, that he or she is intact, and in some way there, which gave rise to the wildest rumours and which aroused the gravest indignation.  

It is striking to note that it is precisely this possibility that the families of the victims of COVID-19 seemed to be deprived of, that is, until France’s High Council for Public Health decided to soften the drastic recommendations it had started imposing (a relaxation which seems to have been given a mixed reception among professionals).[10] The fact that the impossibility of seeing and taking care of infected corpses has not led to riots, is probably a sign of the greater confidence that people in France have toward nursing staff and funeral service employees. However, at the speed in which false news and conspiracy theories are circulating today, one cannot help but think that it would take nothing for the wildest rumours to take over the funerary neglect once again forced upon people across the globe. If, in this case, people seem to demonstrate a calm resignation before the impossibility of burying their dead in a proper manner, it is perhaps less because of a new and mysteriously acquired wisdom, than because of the disease itself. This is the analytical pathway that the previously quoted article by Samuel Cohn Jr. appears to be opening: some epidemics cause violence, he says, while others do not.  

This is not simply a matter of the number of casualties: it only took a few cholera deaths for a riot to break out in England, while the hundreds of thousands of deaths from the pandemic influenza of 1918-1919, and other deadly flu epidemics before it or after, have caused no violence anywhere in the world. On the other hand, it probably has something to do with the lethality of the disease (the case fatality rate exceeded 50% for cholera as well as for Ebola, when that of the so-called “Spanish flu” probably never exceeded 4%). Anyway, what seems to emerge from this, is the strange and almost fantastic idea that it is somehow the behaviour of the disease that determines our own. By their speed or by their mode of propagation, certain epidemics would make us socially violent, when others would incite us to resignation – and even, certain diseases would make us preoccupied about our dead, when others would seem to allow us to collectively neglect them for a time.  

*This paper was originally published on the 30th of March 2020 in French, on the news website Bibliobs: https://www.nouvelobs.com/idees/20200330.OBS26824/ce-qu-il-en-coute-de-negliger-les-morts-en-temps-d-epidemie.html [1]


[1] Marie Petit: “Coronavirus. À Falaise, quatre personnes verbalisées après un enterrement”, Ouest France, 22/03/2020. https://www.ouest-france.fr/sante/virus/coronavirus/coronavirus-falaise-quatre-personnes-verbalisees-apres-un-enterrement-6788335, accessed 2/04/2020.

[2] Pascale Santi and Isabelle Rey-Lefebvre: “‘C’est un déchirement, un dilemme entre la raison et l’amour’: les familles en deuil privées de cérémonie”, Le Monde, 21/03/2020. https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2020/03/21/coronavirus-les-familles-en-deuil-privees-de-ceremonie_6033910_3224.html, accessed 2/04/2020.

[3] Angela Giuffrida and Lorenzo Tondo: “‘A generation has died’ : Italian province struggles to bury its coronavirus dead”, The Guardian, 19/03/2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/19/generation-has-died-italian-province-struggles-bury-coronavirus-dead, accessed 2/04/2020.

[4] Sofia Bettiza: “Coronavirus: How Covid-19 is denying dignity to the dead in Italy”, BBC News, 26/03/2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-52031539, accessed 2/04/2020.

[5] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book II, par. LII, trans. Rex Warner, London, Penguin Books, 1974.

[6] Thomas W. Laqueur: The Work of the Dead. A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Princeton University Press, 2015, p. 126.

[7] Christos Lynteris and Nicholas Evans: Histories of post-mortem contagion. Infectious corpses and conflicted burials, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

[8] Veronica Gomez-Temesio and Frédéric Le Marcis: “La mise en camp de la Guinée. Ebola et l’expérience postcoloniale”, L’Homme. Revue française d’anthropologie, 222, 2017, pp.57-89. https://www.cairn.info/revue-l-homme-2017-2-page-57.htm, accessed 2/04/2020.

[9] World Health Organization, “How to conduct safe and dignified burial of a patient who has died from suspected or confirmed Ebola or Marburg virus disease”, first published nov.2014, updated July 2017, https://www.who.int/csr/resources/publications/ebola/safe-burial-protocol/en/, accessed 2/04/2020

[10] Lucie Hennequin: “En cas de décès à cause du coronavirus, qu’advient-il du corps?” HuffPost, 27/0/2020. https://www.huffingtonpost.fr/entry/quadvient-il-du-corps-en-cas-de-deces-par-covid-19_fr_5e7c77d9c5b6cb08a9286090?utm_hp_ref=fr-homepage, accessed 2/04/2020.

Gregory Delaplace’s research in social anthropology is based on two distinct registers, which only partially overlap: a regionalist register , anchored in Mongolia and interior Asia, and a comparative register, open to more general theoretical perspectives. His regional research revolves mainly around the conceptual and practical modalities of relationships to “invisible things” (üzegdehgüiyum in Mongolian): encounters with spirits, the renewal of shamanism, relation of nomad communities to an animated “land” (nutag), but also what these “invisible things” say about the political (cross-border relationships) or economic (post-communist capitalism) local situation. In a more general perspective, his teaching in the Anthropology Department at University of Paris Nanterre, as well as his participation in certain collective projects in France and England, have led him to work in a more comparative manner on the ethnographic uses of photography, on funerals and the circulation of the dead, and on the ways of taking charge of the invisible through human societies.

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