The Dead Make an Appearance at the Family Reunion

The Malagasy people of Madagascar have built a way of life around death. They perform a ritual called a famadihana ceremony, also known as “the turning of the bones”, to celebrate and reconnect with the deceased. Once every five or seven years, a family has a celebration at their ancestral crypt where the bodies are exhumed, wrapped in fine silk, sprayed with wine or perfume, and brought to community festivities. The ceremony consists of two-day festivities and family members will sometimes even travel days on foot to attend.

The first thing that occurs is the bodies are removed from the tomb, cleaned, and the old garments are replaced with new silk garments. Women who are having trouble getting pregnant will take fragments of an old shroud from an ancestor and place it under their mattress to induce pregnancy. Once the deceased has been dressed, there is a festival with a live band and the family members will dance to music with the bodies of their ancestors. It is a chance for the living to pass family news to dead and ask for their blessings.

Once stories of the dead are finished being told and the festivities have commenced, the bodies are returned to the tombs. They are re-buried with gifts of money and alcohol. The bodies are placed upside down to close the cycle of life and death and after a final cleaning, the tomb is closed to end the previous celebrations. This ritual practiced by the Malagasy people is very similar to the ritual of Ma’Nene’ performed by the Tana Toraja in Indonesia, where they practiced “cleaning of the corpses”.

Today the ritual of famadihana is on decline due to the expense of the celebrations and opposition from some Christian organizations. The festivals are a costly affair including meals to feed hundreds of guests and expensive silk to wrap the dead. Some of the poor do not have a family crypt and will save up money to build one and will hold a ceremony for their own ancestors. The bone-turning ceremony is a collective expression of respect and love for the ancestors and is a very unique ritual not seen in other cultures.

Bearak, B 2010, Dead Join the Living in a Family Celebration, 5 September 2010, The New York Times. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/06/world/africa/06madagascar.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

Munnik, J & Scott, K 2016, Famadihana: The Family Reunion Where the Dead Get an Invite, 18 October 2016, CNN. Available from: http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/18/travel/madagascar-turning-bones/

3 responses to “The Dead Make an Appearance at the Family Reunion

  1. When I read this article, I didn’t know how to feel about “cleaning of the corpse”. I tried to imagine if this were a practice here in the United States and couldn’t imagine it happening. Although this is different from our practices, it was definitely interesting to learn about. Does the body have to go through a special process so it doesn’t fall apart when they take it out? How do they have to handle the body? I’m sure the body is fragile as it gets older. This was super interesting to learn about and wonder if outsiders have ever been able to experience this.

  2. Jennifer Pianin

    After reading about the Tana Toraja, it is fascinating that there are other cultures with similar practices. These cultural rituals are extremely interesting to me because of the stark differences between them and those in my culture. While it might seem odd to those that don’t practice similar things, I think it is a great thing that the deceased are celebrated in these elaborate festivities. It is wonderful that family members pass on stories to younger members who might not have known the person when they died. It is a way to keep family history and stories alive. I think it is very sad that they are on the decline because they seem to be embedded in their culture.

  3. While reading this article, I could not help but to think of the vast differences between this practice the some of the rituals we have here in America. Most striking was the emphasis on preserving the ‘life’ of the dead. Here, we place a great deal of attention on what goes on before the dead are buried. The funeral services and rituals serve as a way to say final goodbyes. In this case, it seems that the dead get to keep living far after their death.

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