Famadihana, or turning of the bones, is a funeral custom found in the highlands of Madagascar. It is an important part of ancestor worship. Depending on the family and how much money they have, the dead may be turned over several times after burial. In theory, the turning takes place every seven years, unless in the meantime a deceased person visits a relative in a dream to ask him or her to look after him or her.

In Madagascar, the dead are still alive

Madagascar. Famadihana or ceremony of the turning of the dead. The dead are walked through the village.

"From an early age, Malagasy people are close to death: they take part in the wake, which sometimes lasts several days and nights. Death is a fact of life. It's something natural that doesn't frighten them, and it never occurs to them to leave the room where the dead are laid to rest., warns Noromalala Martinet, who has published a book (1) on the subject and organised the turning over of her parents' bodies. She adds: "It's true that with poverty and disease and no means of treatment, death is everywhere and spares no one." Of course, the death of a loved one is experienced as a painful moment for the living, but at the same time as a happy prospect for the deceased, who will become a Razana, an Ancestor. For the Malagasy, the notion of death is radically different from that experienced in the West. Neither an end nor a break, it is the passage to another life. This change of life gives the Ancestors powers, such as the ability to call out to the living and communicate with them.

Rituals to observe

Madagascar. Famadihana. Musicians taking part in the ceremony.

"In 1984, I clearly heard my parents calling out to me, hence my firm decision to return to the land of my ancestors to offer them new shrouds, as they had promised while they were still alive," recalls Noromalala. "There is something universal in the Malagasy cult of the dead: rediscovering one's roots by renewing and strengthening ties with one's family."
But before the ceremony, you should consult the Mpanandro, a diviner, astrologer and medium. It was he who presided over the exhumation ceremony. He alone told the day and time of the opening of the tomb. Any breach of the prohibitions exposes the offenders to reprisals from the Razana.

On the chosen day, the Malagasy flag is flown over the tomb. It symbolises the love of the land of the Ancestors and the living sing, at the request of the pastor (or parish priest), who is present at the site for the religious service: "Azo mba manadino ny Tanindrazanao". (Never forget your homeland, which in Malagasy is called the land of ancestors). And the whole audience promised: « Tsara izao, Tsara izao, Eny tsy ho adinonay ny Tanindrazanay ». (Yes, Yes, We will never forget our homeland). Then we have to make a ZoroThis involves the sacrifice of a zebu and a pig, with the meat divided equally between all the families in the village. In this way, the ancestors remind the living that they are all equal before death. Zoro also symbolises fraternity and tolerance between the living.

Madagascar. Famadihana.
Madagascar. Famadihana. Dances and songs in honour of the ancestors.

This ceremony is a joyous occasion for the families and the people of the village. You mustn't cry during the exhumation. You must be joyful. Joy at being alive, joy at seeing your loved ones again. Musicians and dancers are invited to liven up the day. Everyone dances and sings in honour of the ancestors. Among the Merina, the Mpilalao dancers are dressed in gleaming costumes. They compete with speeches or kabary, vocalizations, belly games, hand games and shoulder rolls. While the men do not skimp on the glassfuls of toaka gasy, Malagasy rum. All this comes at a price, and it is not uncommon for families to go to great expense so that their ancestors can sleep in peace.

Opening the tomb

Madagascar. Famadihana. Bodies removed from the graves are wrapped in new shrouds and rolled in a new mat.

The village chief ensures that the ceremony runs smoothly and that the rituals are respected. The tomb of Noromalala's family can only be opened from the inside. Men chosen by the master of ceremonies climb up the "home of the dead" to loosen a few stones to slip into the crevice and enter this place of eternal rest. And then the heavy stone door opened. "My older brothers go down into the tomb, following the guardian, and then my sisters, my younger brother and I close the way. The whole family is there. The guardian of the tomb, a member of the family, makes sure that no stranger enters. He then proceeds to light the candles that each of us is holding in our hands. And our loved ones appear, right there in front of us.". The bodies lie on stone slabs. The tomb guardian identifies the location of each body. "Let each one of you remember it". he says. "Then, with solemnity, he continues to introduce our Ancestors. The grandparents and great-grandparents occupy the left wing of the tomb. By indicating the place occupied by each of the Ancestors, he is in fact calling out the names to make sure that all our dead are there, that no one is missing."

Madagascar. Famadihana. The body of the deceased leaves the tomb, carried by the family.

The bodies are then removed from the tomb, each wrapped in a beautiful new woven reed mat."The silk shrouds are then renewed and added over the old ones. Here again, the dead are still alive, because even death does not separate them. They are placed gently on our laps. It's reunion time, we touch them tenderly, we caress them, we talk to them, we tell them they won't be cold any more, we introduce them to our children and grandchildren born since their deaths, asking them to protect and bless them. I remember feeling pain and shedding hot tears. I couldn't accept Mum in that mat. I still wanted to hear her sing, to see her in every nook and cranny of our hut. I don't remember who came to remind me: you don't cry during an exhumation".An altar has been erected outside the tomb in the north-west corner. The brothers and sisters gather around it for a moment of meditation. The aim is to show respect for the deceased and to ask for their protection and blessing. The guests come to greet them in turn. Then, in accordance with tradition, the couple are reunited in the same shroud for eternity. They are then taken for a final walk, carried on the shoulders of their children. To the sound of music, they are made to circle the tomb seven times. Seven is the sacred, ritual number that gives the dead time to return to the familiar places where they once lived. Before the heavy stone door closes on them, to prevent them from leaving uninvited during the next famadihana.

Text: Brigitte Postel
Photos: Alain Martinet

This report was published in Natives n° 12.

Madagascan customs and traditionsr
Noromalala Martinet
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