When: Famadihana only takes place every five to seven years; the right date is set by the tromba, the family shaman.
Famadihana is a funerary tradition of the Malagasy people in Madagascar.
It is known as the turning of the bones, people bring forth the bodies of their ancestors from the family crypts and re-wrap them in fresh cloth, then dance with the corpses around the tomb to live music.
The Famadihana custom appears to be a custom of somewhat recent origin, perhaps only since the seventeenth century in its present form.
Although it may be an adaptation of pre-modern double funeral customs from Southeast Asia.
The custom is based upon a belief that the spirits of the dead finally join the world of the ancestors after the body’s complete decomposition and appropriate ceremonies.
In Madagascar this became a regular ritual usually once every seven years, and the custom brings together extended families in celebrations of kinship.
The practice of Famadihana is on the decline due to the expense of silk shrouds and belief by some Malagasy that the practice is outdated.
Early missionaries discouraged the practice and Evangelical Christian Malagasy have abandoned the practice in increasing numbers.
The Catholic Church, however, no longer objects to the practice because it regards Famadihana as purely cultural rather than religious.
As one Malagasy man explained to the BBC:
“It’s important because it’s our way of respecting the dead. It is also a chance for the whole family, from across the country, to come together.
The ritual of famadihana is on the decline due to the expense of the celebrations and opposition from some Christian organisations..
Conducting the celebrations are a costly affair which involve elaborate preparations including meals to feed hundreds of guests, and expensive silk shrouds to wrap up the deceased.
Some of the poor do not have family crypts, so they save up for several years to be able to build one, and then hold a festival for their own dead ancestors.
The Malagasy people believe that no dwelling for the living should be as substantial and costly as the tombs which house the dead.
The money spent on keeping the ancestors happy is more than any family member would dream of spending on themselves.
There has been increasing opposition in Madagascar from Evangelical Protestants who discourage the custom.
Although the Catholic Church no longer objects because it regards famadihana as purely cultural rather than religious.
Travel writer Hilary Bradt, who has attended the famadihana celebrations, has described the meaning she ascribed to these unique rituals:
“In our culture there is no mechanism to ensure that, years after their passing, we continue to remember the dead. Yes, we honor their memory and lay flowers on their graves, but as a solitary act”.
Controversy with Famadihana:
Madagascans have been told to stop the traditional practice of Famadihana – which sees locals dig up deceased relatives and dance with them before they are re-buried.
It is feared the ceremony has helped spread an outbreak of pneumonic plague that has left more than 120 dead on the African island.
The country’s health chief Willy Randriamarotia said: ‘If a person dies of pneumonic plague and is then interred in a tomb that is subsequently opened for a Famadihana, the bacteria can still be transmitted and contaminate whoever handles the body’.
- Turning of the Bones – by Hilary Bradt.