Author Archives: Alex R. Berman

Ebola: Public Safety Issue or Cultural Violation?

Locals observe foreign health officials burying an Ebola victim. WHO Guidelines for Ebola Burials

The 2014 Ebola Outbreak claimed about 11,000 lives and transcended country borders. Ebola presents with frightening symptoms: more frightening was that it kept spreading. Thanks to Anthropologists, health officials knew why: local burial practices endangered the lives of those partaking in burial rituals. We will look at how those practices influenced Ebola policies and procedures:

Initial Resistance

When the first responders to Ebola came to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, they were determined to stop Ebola’s transmission at any cost. The Ebola virus is transferred through infectious bodily fluids, so foreign health officials took over disposing of the dead and developed a procedure to handle mass casualties. The African locals did not respond well to this practice, often resisting health officials’ efforts to bury the dead.

Anthropologists’ Observations

Anthropologists were tasked with understanding the locals’ resistance. Anthropologists discovered common practices and beliefs among locals:

  1. Handling of the body with the bare hands
  2. “Love Touch”: loved ones either touch the face or lie on top of the deceased in order to unify the living and ancestral spirits, and even receive spiritual gifts from the deceased.
  3. Importance of a proper burial: many locals believe in life after death. If a proper burial does not occur, then the deceased cannot achieve spirithood, and therefore the angry spirit will return and punish the living relatives.
  4. Mistrust of government: foreign health officials had to have communicated with the government to assist, so many Africans thought their governments did not respect them. As a result, many locals mistrusted their leaders and did not want to comply.


Anthropologists realized that in isolating deceased Ebola victims, the health officials were dishonoring locals’ culture and beliefs. Anthropologists relayed these findings to policymakers, who formed coalitions with government officials, tribal and religious leaders in order to come up with burial techniques that would honor the dead and living while halting Ebola.  As a result, locals allowed their leaders and foreign officials to assist and Ebola transmission slowed. It was one of the first times that foreign health officials recognized that religious and cultural practices and political beliefs strongly influence health promotion techniques on an epidemic level. They adjusted their procedures accordingly.


It was important to recognize the cultural factors at play, but was recognition and adjustment too late? How many have to die before world aid organizations adjust their policies and procedures to accommodate many different cultures and societies? Although these organizations are powerful, they sometimes adopt a “savior” mentality, and forget that they can still learn. Another outbreak could happen: public safety is of great importance, but so is cultural relativism.

Works Cited:

Manguvo, Angellar and Benford Mafuvadze.”The Impact of Traditional and Religious Practices on Spread of Ebola in West Africa.” The Pan African Medical Journal. Vol 22 Issue 9. 10 October 2015. Accessed 12 March 2017.

Maxmen, Amy. “How the Fight Against Ebola Tested a Culture’s Traditions.” National Geographic. 30 Jan 2015. Accessed 12 March 2017.

The Artistic and Scientific Body: a Historical Comparison

The human cadaver has different meanings based on context, and these meanings dictate differential treatment of the cadaver. How has this phenomenon manifested throughout history?

Classical Era

Post-mortem dissection is used to understand the human body. Yet, the practice was scarce in the second century C.E because it was considered a taboo; many feared that it would mar the body. As a result, those who still wanted to understand anatomy and physiology–without compromising the corpse’s integrity–resorted to animal dissections. Galen of Pergamum, a Greek philosopher and physician, often used primate cadavers in his studies. Obviously, primate anatomy is not equivalent to human anatomy, so we cannot take all of Galen’s conclusions at face value. Nevertheless, Galen’s vast array of works were passed on as truth.


The Renaissance was a time of intellectual curiosity and revisiting antiquity; many of Galen’s works resurfaced. Art was also on the rise, so it should not come as a surprise that Renaissance ideals affected perceptions of the body. Thus, many felt that the value of the corpse was not in its untouched preservation; instead, the corpse’s value was its potential for beauty and discovery.

Anatomist Andreas Vesalius channeled these dualistic Renaissance values by meshing art and science together to make comprehensive anatomical textbook de Humani corporis Fabrica libri septum. In Latin, his text outlines the mechanics and placement of organs (including some of Galen’s missteps). Paired with the descriptions are detailed images of flayed corpses with toned muscles, and nature scenery in the backdrop. Often, the full corpses’ poses represent allegories. Vesalius is credited with creating a more holistic, accurate portrayal of the human body, but I believe he is also responsible for altering perceptions of the corpse. Vesalius proved that the body was functional but also beautiful. These pictures showcase the cadaver as a masterpiece brimming with vitality that one can admire with awe and reverence.


Do these perceptions still hold true today? One can argue that the Body World exhibit displays cadavers in order to educate and fascinate guests. On the other hand, open casket viewings simply depict the corpse in its finest form, as if still alive. For current medical students, the corpse is a learning opportunity: human cadavers serve as excellent teaching tools for practicing sutures, exploring anatomy, and adjusting to death’s presence.

We ascribe values to the cadaver that are relative to our environments, but often we are influenced by our past. Will these values change? If so, what will they be? Only time will tell.


Galen. Charles Singer, trans. Galen: On Anatomical Procedures. London: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Garrison, Fielding H. Principles of Anatomic Illustration Before Vesalius: An Inquiry into the Rationale of Artistic Anatomy. New York: Paul B. Hoeber, Inc., 1926.

Robecht Van Hee, ed. Art of Vesalius. Antwerp: Garant Publishers, 2014.

Sigerist, Henry E. “The Foundation of Human Anatomy in the Renaissance.” Sigma Xi Quarterly 22.1 (1934): 8–12. Web 9 Feb 2017. JSTOR.

Vegetative Patient Communicates with Doctors that He is Not in Pain.

I found this article online and it is really interesting.


Death of a Leader; Public Mourning

We talked in class about the death of a leader or powerful figure. I though immediately about the death of Vaclav Havel last December when I was in Prague. The Czech Republic was very affected by the death of its former leader and the world mourned him.

Havel was really important to the Czech people but I want to give you a little background on who he is and why he is important.

Vaclav Havel was born into a privileged family that lost its  wealth when the communists where installed in Czechoslovakia in 1948. Communist rule limited his education and he bounced around in various jobs until he landed in the Writers Union in the mid 60s where he was first active in politics and humanism. Havel wrote throughout his educated life and was even invited to visit America to see a production of his second play. Travel was limited under the Soviet rule but he was allowed to go.

Among Havel’s first political acts was his opposition to the Soviet tanks in Prague during August of 1968 suppressing reforms, and his organization of a petition repudiating the politics of normalization in the Soviet Union.  Multiple actions caused him to be in and our of prison for about five years.

A politically sanctioned student demonstration on November 17th, 1989 was broken up by the police where they brutally beat and arrested most of the demonstrators. The significance of November 17th for the Czechs is related to student martyrs and abuse over time, if you want to know more about the role of eth Czech students you acn read more at this website…

Vaclav Havel organized a meeting two days after the student beatings where he and other dissidents established the Civivc Forum. The Civic Forum requested the communist leaders to resign,  an investigation of police action, and release of political prisoners. The day after Havels’ meeting 200,000 people, mostly students again, participated in a demonstration that was the first of the series that ended the Communist rule, the Velvet Revolution. Vaclav Havel was installed as the president of Czechoslovakia and remained the President during the Velvet Divorce, the split of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

During his presidency he was constantly addressing human rights and providing “moral leadership.” He constantly fought for equality and rights of the Roma and gypsy peoples as well as other minorities in the country. Havel was incredibly instrumental in the formation of the Czech Republic as the country that we see today. He was a major player in the inclusion of the Czech Republic in the European Union, which happened the year after his resignation.

Havel “stepped down” in 2003 but he was still instrumental in the future of the country. Many present leaders would seek his advice well after 2003.

The reaction of the Czech people after the death of Havel was very interesting to watch.

A mini memorial to Havel at the entrance to the public viewing at the Prague Castle

During Havel’s death I was able to witness first hand the reaction of the people. I was on the Charles Bridge during the procession of the body to the Prague Castle for the public viewing. The Bridge filled up with people and then a procession of police, citizens with flags of support for Havel as well as Czech flags. At the end of this procession was a car with the coffin inside.

The Charles Bridge just before sunrise, before the procession of the coffin

There was a writhe of red roses on the side of the car. All of the people on the bridge, civilians, photographers, and news reporters fallowed the car in silence all the way to the Prague Castle. It was a very curious procession. The people fallowed the coffin about two and a half miles to the Cathedral of St. Vitus in the Castle complex. Many of the followers held Czech Flags and banners with praise for the former leader.

The car containing the coffin as it slowly drives by our spot on the bridge

My view of the procession

The streets where lined with votive candles and flowers and national and solid black flags hung from buildings.

An alley in Prague

An interesting dedication

The week after his death all advertisement stands replaced ads with memorial posters of Havel.

Havel mourning poster

The Prague Castle is still the seat of government in the Czech Republic and business went on as usual as it did during Havel’s reign.

Officials leaving a non-public government building in the castle complex

For more information on Havel’s life you can read an article on him in the NY Times…

or from The Guardian …

If you want to know specifics about his funeral there are articles here…


Mass Death

We talked today about the effects of mass death and the changes that we have to make when we deal with it.

I just wanted to share my family’s experice with this,

My parents visited Auschwitz last year and my family has a travel blog where they documented their experience. Here is a link to the blog page about their visit.

The writing and photos are mostly done by my Dad.

I hope this is informative.



I really enjoyed the Oakland Cemetery tour that we took today. I noticed that the Jewish sections of the cemetery had the graves placed very close together and they where able to fit more people into the grave plot.

This reminded me of my visits to Prague and the Old Jewish Cemetery there. The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague was the only cemetery used for the Jewish population in the city from 1439 to 1787. The site consists of multiple layers of burials, the community actually brought in more earth from other locations to be able to have these multiple layers. I wanted to share some of my photos form my trip that shows just how many graves are in the two and a half acres of this cemetery.

Old Jewish Cemetery Prague, Czech Republic

If you want to know more about the Jewish Cemetery and the Jewish Quarter in Prague you can find more information at this website…

Here is another website that gives some information on the Old Jewish Cemetery as well as other Cemeteries around the world… 

I hope that you find this place as interesting as I do.


Mummy Monks in the Czech Republic?

Capuchin Monks mummified in the Crypt; Brno, Czech Republic

We usually associate mummies with Egypt however; you don’t need to be a pharaoh to be mummified. In Brno, Czech Republic there are mummies. Mummification happens when you have an environment that allows very little bacteria to grow and therefore the flesh dos not decompose, as we learned in class a few weeks ago. This only partially decomposes the body, and gives a “tanned” effect. The mummification of the monks in Brno is not like the mummies of Egypt. The mummies of Egypt have been mummified by wrappings and preparation, they where meant to be mummified. The monks in Brno were mummified by accident.

When I say Capuchin I don’t not mean the monkey; the Capuchin is an order of monks found around the world.

You can find more information about this order at this link…

The Crypt and church in Brno where founded in the mid. 17th century. The crypt of the Brno monastery is located in the basement, which is probably basement space left over from houses originally in that location. When the monks died they where brought to the basement in a coffin on a mobile gout. The coffin used was the same coffin used for every monk for one hundred years. Once there, they where lain down with a few bricks below their heads. The monks where located in the crypt below the alter. This placement below the alter is very symbolic in the Christian faith, in the bible it states that below the alter of God in heaven lie the souls of the Saints. The monks were not meant to be mummified but due to the environment of the crypt the monks where mummified in place.

Alley to church; Brno, Czech Republic

The church is still standing today and you can go and view them in the same position that they where lain when buried. The entrance is located behind the church in a small white courtyard. It is reached by walking through abnormally (by today’s standards) narrow alleys with whitewashed walls and small beams holding lanterns high above the street. Some of the monks have the hoods of their cloaks pulled up over their heads to symbolize a special unit within the Capuchin order. Other monks are buried with objects. There is a monk who was buried with a rosary and a wooden cross signifying some status that he held in life.

Mummification did not only happen to the monks, other members of society where placed in the crypt and where subject to the same mummifying conditions. If you go to the monastery today you can view all of the remaining mummies in the crypt, there are about 25 monks and a handful of townspeople of various class. You can see a high class family that was mummified in all their finery as well as some choir boys and a doctor. There is also the body of a Saint in the crypt in Brno. this particular Saint is prepared in the “Spanish style.” She is dressed up in clothing that shows the bones. Saints bones are very important because thy are primary relics of the Siant. Having the whole body of a saint would be really important as well because that saint would be the church, monastery, and even the town’s patron. The patron saint of a place, in the middle ages, would be the protector of the people against all enemies, divine or mortal. This saint has been placed in a glass coffin to allow visitors and pilgrims to see the body but not to touch it, increasing the otherworldly sense associated with the divine.

Saint in glass coffin; Brno, Czech Republic

To me this is interesting because I wonder how the people of the community viewed the mummified bodies from a spiritual standpoint. The fact that the crypt held the remains of monks, commoners, and a saint is also unsual. In the middle ages a saint’s remains where placed in a high ranking location to be viewed and worshiped by the people, not near the bodies of the locals. This change in the organization of the crypt is obviously changed for a museum set-up but It is still curious that all of these bodies where found together in the same location.

Almost all the information on this monastery and church is in Czech, a language that I do not speak, however it is interesting to think about how the community would react to finding members of their community mummified in the crypt of the church.

As westerners we see mummies as foreign. What happens when our own people are mummified? Does this change how we see the dead? Is a dead person just a dead person or does the state of their corpse affect the way we see the person? Does it affect the way we see the death?

If you are not expecting a body to be mummified, how does that affect how you deal with the death?

If, in the future, we discover that out relative that we had buried as a child had been mummified; how would this affect our grieving process? Would this change our perspective on this person or their death?