Author Archives: Chandler Lichtefeld

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:

Munnik, J & Scott, K 2016, Famadihana: The Family Reunion Where the Dead Get an Invite, 18 October 2016, CNN. Available from:

Grief: Ritual Finger Amputaion

The death of a loved one can be a traumatic experience and causes emotional pain and suffering. However, in some cultures the loss can result in physical pain as well. Certain cultures believe this physical representation of emotional pain is essential to the grieving process. This can be seen in the Dani tribe in Papua, New Guinea. Some tribe members have cut off the top of their finger upon attending a funeral. This ritual is specific to the woman population of the Dani tribe. A woman will cut off the top of her finger if she loses a family member or child. The practice was done to both gratify and drive away the spirits, while also providing a way to use physical pain as an expression of sorrow and suffering. The Dani tribe members have the religious belief that if the deceased were a powerful person while living, their essence would remain in the village in lingering spiritual turmoil.

The practice is performed by first tying a string tightly around the upper half of the finger for about 30 minutes. This allows the finger to become numb for a “near” painless removal. The finger is removed by using an ax and the open sore is cauterized both to prevent bleeding and to form new-calloused fingers. The left over piece of finger is dried and then either burned to ashes or stored in a special place. This ritual is now banned in New Guinea, but the practice can still be seen in some of the older women of the community who have mutilated fingertips. The practice of causing physical pain to show grief and deal with mourning can be seen in a numerous amount of other cultures as well. Cutting arms, legs and body, shaving off hair from the head, and burning skin are rituals used by other cultures during the grieving process. Grieving is a natural response to losing someone and everyone has different ways of dealing with grief.


Zimmerman, F 2011, Sioux Mourning Ritual, 18 October 2011, American Indian History Blog Spot. Available from:

Sumitra, M 2011, Tribe Practices Finger Cutting as a Means of Grieving, 16 December 2011, Oddity Central. Available from: