Although the family may shed some tears over the remains of their loved ones, crying soon turns to smiles.
It’s a little like a party, but one where the guests of honor are corpses. There is a definite festive atmosphere in the crowd as the tomb is opened. By the light of candles, close relatives enter the dark, earthy-smelling crypt to retrieve the remains of their ancestors. The dead emerge wearing their shrouds, known as lambas, and are laid out on the ground ready to be unwrapped — the bones lovingly cleaned, and the remains rewrapped in their new burial cloths, ready to join in the celebrations.
Corpses are identified by labels written onto their shrouds.
To those of us more accustomed to somber and sometimes almost clinical memorial services, Madagascar’s Famadihana (translated as “turning”, of the bones) ceremony may seem odd or even ghoulish. However, to those who take part in the ritual, it is a joyous occasion. Friends and relatives are reunited, there is food, drink and music, and beloved family members who have passed away are honored and celebrated.
At Famadihana rituals, death is celebrated rather than mourned.
The party begins even before the exhumation, with the attendees (“mourners” does not seem to be the right word) gathering to drink and dance to a live band that will continue to play for almost the entire ritual. Music is a very important part of the ceremony. The jaunty sound of the mainly brass instruments has been described by one observer as “distinctly reminiscent of the ragtime music that was the precursor to jazz in New Orleans.”
The corpses in their shrouds are lovingly carried and danced with by ritual participants.
Once everyone is ready, the boisterous gathering walks — and dances — its way to the designated tomb accompanied by the playing band, sometimes for quite a distance. There is a cheerful mood, no doubt brought on partly by the local hooch (moonshine), which many have been drinking, but also by the music and the occasion itself.
The corpses are reburied with gifts from the living, including bottles of alcohol.
The carnival atmosphere continues at the burial site, where vendors may have even set up stalls to sell cigarettes and ice cream to the growing crowd. The tomb itself is a lovingly maintained cement, stone or marble structure, the material used depending on the wealth of the family. Once everyone is in place, it is time to bring out the most important participants in the festivities: the departed.
Close family members are chosen to enter the tombs and remove the remains for the ceremony.
First, stonemasons unseal the door to let in a few close relatives. The shrouded bodies, generally only bones by now, are identified by labels on their ‘bunk beds’ in the tomb and are brought out one by one by family members. This is the most somber part of the ritual as holding the remains of their loved ones brings some participants to tears. Even the band is quiet.
Family crypts are sometimes even better maintained than the family home.
The bones are carefully unwrapped from their old lambas, any accumulated filth is cleaned off, and they are rewrapped in their new cloths. Pieces of the old lambas may be kept by women who will either swallow them or put them under their mattress in the hope that this will help them conceive.
In an amazing display of stamina, the band plays on throughout almost the entire ceremony and feast.
As this unwrapping and rewrapping happens, the dead are spoken to and brought up-to-date on the latest news and gossip. Then, once the corpses are in their new lambas, the band strikes up again, the tears are wiped away, and the celebration continues. To the tune of folk songs, the bones are carried, or ‘danced’, around the tomb amidst much chatter and laughter.
As the ritual goes on, vendors keep the participants supplied with drinks and other necessities.
All good celebrations require good food, and Famadihana is definitely no exception. The family of the deceased must provide all their guests with a feast, either before or during the ritual. Zebu, a type of hump-backed cattle, are sacrificed and cooked, ready to be served with traditional mounds of rice drenched in fat. Naturally, the food is accompanied by much singing, drinking and dancing.
Often the whole village will be invited to attend a Famadihana ceremony.
Like Cinderella, the ancestors’ remains must be back in their homes — the crypts — by an exact time, usually just before sunset. Before being returned to their stone beds, the corpses may be sprayed with perfumes, then laid back to rest with gifts of flowers, alcohol and even money. The door of the tomb is re-sealed and the family can return home knowing that they have appeased the dead.
Family members spend a few rare quiet moments with the deceased.
To better understand the ritual, it is important to know that most Madagascans (or Malagasy) do not consider death as the end of their obligations to, and interactions with, their ancestors. They believe that their deceased elders continue to not only look down on them, but guide them, keep them safe and help them — all from their position in the afterlife. No wonder it’s so important to keep them happy!
The festivities continue until the ancestors’ remains are back in their tombs.
The origins of the Famadihana ceremony are believed to be in South East Asia; the tradition was carried over to Madagascar with the first colonists from there, 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. Depending on the needs and means of the particular family involved, the ritual is traditionally performed every seven years.
Perhaps the only ones that don’t enjoy the ritual are the zebu, a local breed of cattle, which are sacrificed for the feast.
Bad health or misfortune among the surviving family members or even a dream may signal the ancestor’s need for attention, and therefore an earlier Famadihana ceremony. At the same time, relatives who cannot afford to hold the ritual after seven years may delay it until they can.
A Famadihana procession may walk quite some distance from the village to the tomb.
Preparation for Famadihana can begin years before, when relatives start to save up money for the occasion. A proper Famadihana ceremony is expensive — and when dealing with dead ancestors who still have influence over your life, it is not advised to be a cheapskate! All members of the immediate family are required to contribute, at the risk of losing their spot in the family tomb if they don’t comply.
A family mourns at home.
Ideally the lambas should be made of costly red silk, although cheaper white cotton can be substituted if absolutely necessary, as these photographs show. Added to this is the expense of feeding and entertaining the guests — often an entire village’s worth.
Guests drift home after the ceremony.
Some in Madagascar have called for an end to the ritual, seeing the financial strain that Famadihana places on a family. They believe that the money would be better spent on the living rather than for the benefit of the dead.
A Malagasy woman holds a portrait of one of the ancestors being celebrated at this Famadihana ritual.
Critics of the Famadihana’s costs are not the only ones who have tried to stop the “turning of the bones.” The Christian church and Muslim clerics have also attempted to end the centuries-old ritual, yet without success. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church in Madagascar now accepts the rite, comparing it to a tradition rather than a religious ceremony.
To save on expenses, Famadihana ceremonies are held for all occupants of the family tomb at once.
Although the supporters of Famadihana have so far managed to hold on to their customs, the ritual is starting to lose its popularity. However, as one Malagasy has written, to deprive the people of this ceremony would be to rob them of “some spiritual landmark… We would be lost and “soulless.”
Famadihana holds an important place in the hearts of the people of Madagascar. It gives them the chance to show their devotion and respect for those who have gone before them, and to keep their familial bonds strong — even after death. Seen this way, the ritual is neither morbid nor macabre; rather, as anthropologist Professor Maurice Block puts it, at its heart, Famadihana is an act of love.