Dance with the Dead

To outsiders dancing with the corpse of a dead loved one, years after their demise, might seem ghoulish. But as Jonny Hogg reports, to the people of Madagascar, it is a ritual of respect for their departed ancestors.

The band, a cacophonous near harmony of tattered trumpets and elderly clarinets, has been has been playing for hours now.

The hilltop is crowded. The entire community has come to this spot, some distance from the village of Vatolaivy.

People talk and smile, many are drunk, most are dancing and a little distance away from the tomb two entrepreneurial women have set up a stall selling cigarettes and frozen yoghurt.

But it is the tomb itself that is the centre of attention.

Indeed it is for the occupants of the low, flat brick structure that these festivities are taking place.

Masons chip away, unsealing the small stone door.

Finally, the sepulchre is open. I am invited to enter with Roger, whose family are buried here.

Inside the air is dry, with a strong, almost spiced, graveyard scent.

On either side of the room are stone beds, and on them lie the bodies of Roger’s parents and his grandparents, wrapped in yellowing cloth.

Turning of the Bones

He stands proudly amongst his ancestors, introducing me to them almost formally, patting each corpse lightly to identify it.

I emerge once more into the harsh sunlight. Behind me, one by one and with great care, the bodies are carried out of the tomb and laid upon the ground, cradled gently by their relatives.

The rest of the village crowd around, spectators to this piece of family theatre.

At last even the band comes to a stumbling halt. A sort of silence descends.

One girl is holding her dead mother in her arms. She makes no noise but tears stream down her face.

This is the Malagasy tradition of famadihana, or the Turning of the Bones.

It is unique to the Indian Ocean island, a ritual carried out for centuries that may have had its roots in the culture and traditions of South East Asia, some 6,000km (3,728 miles) away, from whence Madagascar was first colonised.

For many outsiders the practice, which involves exhuming dead relatives, rewrapping them in fresh grave clothes and dancing with them around the tomb, can seem almost impossibly strange, ghoulish even.

But for the Malagasy, for whom ancestral worship remains important, it is an essential way of maintaining ties with the dead.

Jean Pierre, a family member, told me why famadihana mattered.

“It’s important because it’s our way of respecting the dead,” he told me. “It is also a chance for the whole family, from across the country, to come together.”

‘Act of love’

Anthropologist Professor Maurice Bloch, who has studied the ritual, says this idea of reunion, between the dead and the living and also the family land, is key.

It is an evocation of being together again, a transformation of sorts so that the dead can experience once more the joys of life. But, most importantly he says, at its heart, famadihana is an act of love.

But some oppose the practice. Certain urbanised Malagasy find the idea outdated and strange in the 21st Century.

There have also been clashes with Christianity. Early missionaries to the country tried to stop it and today increasing numbers of evangelical Christians are turning away from famadihana.

Perhaps surprisingly though, the Roman Catholic Church, the largest in the country, no longer opposes it.

For his part Jean Pierre stressed that in any case it is not a religious ceremony, but a tradition.

Tears to laughter

Back outside the tomb the family begins to tenderly rewrap the bodies with fresh cloth, called lambas, bought at great expense.

The mood lightens and the band strikes up once more.

The corpses are lifted onto shoulders, and with much laughing and jostling they are half carried, half danced around the tomb.

Every few steps with a whoop, the bearers lift them even higher.

I notice the girl who had been crying earlier is smiling and joking with the rest.

This is another transformation and another purpose of famadihana. To convert, almost forcibly, by the requirements of the ritual, grief into happiness.

(Courtesy of BBC)

Way back in 1971 when I was stationed in Tananarive, I learned about this tradition and have seen from a distance the procession and chanting associated with the turning of the bones. I then kept myself away from these ceremonies because I had been told that Malagasy people practice voodoo. My sojourn in Madagascar in those days was a formative experience. During this short period spent there in replacement of the resident Manager of Air India, I went through civil commotion , rioting, burning of the main municipal building and day curfew of the city. From the top of my room of the 12 storey Hilton Hotel building I was able to watch the scenes of looting and mop’s fighting. It was a privilege to have been exposed to this situation which surely broadened my horizon.

Later on, my experience in dealing with the Malagasy people and the insights of the culture and their habits became handy in dealing with them. I managed to secure for Rogers & company the representation of Air Madagascar and many years after the knowledge of the Malagasy people helped me in setting up companies in Madagascar.


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