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Famadihana reburial, ‘turning of the bones’ in Madagascar

Plague Epidemic in Madagascar May be Spread by Dancing with the Dead Ritual

The Malagasy people of Madagascar have built a way of life around death – during the dry winter months, famadihana ceremonies, known as “the turning of the bones” and “dancing with the dead”, take place around various towns and villages to commemorate the deceased. However, the ancient tradition may now be putting citizens at risk, as a deadly outbreak of the plague is spreading around the country, and is already responsible for 124 deaths and over 1,200 suspected cases.

According to Newsweek, officials in Madagascar have said that the centuries-old funerary tradition of exhuming corpses and including them in ceremonies and celebrations, may increase the risk of the plague spreading further.

“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,” Willy Randriamarotia, the chief of staff in Madagascar’s health ministry, told AFP.

Dancing With The Dead from Ed Ou on Vimeo.

Madagascar’s ancient tradition of corpse dancing

Once every two to seven years, each family holds a huge celebration at their ancestral crypt where the remains of the dead are exhumed, wrapped in fine silk, sprayed with wine or perfume, and brought out for community festivities. In the Malagasy culture in Madagascar, the turning of the bones is a vital element in maintaining links with revered ancestors, who still play a very real role in daily life.

Anthropologist Professor Maurice Bloch, who has studied the ritual in Madagascar, says the ceremony is a chance for a family reunion. It is an evocation of being together again, a transformation so that the dead can experience once more the joys of life. But most importantly, he says, famadihana is an act of love.

As one foreigner who witnessed the ceremony described, “I came expecting the most macabre of ceremonies but instead found an extreme form of adoration for loved ones that will forever change how I view life and death”.

The custom is based upon a belief that the spirits of the dead do not join the superior world of the ancestors until after the body has decomposed completely, and until that time, the spirit of the deceased still lingers and is able to communicate with the living.  Until they are gone forever, the festivities of famadihana are a way to shower love and affection upon them.

Death is not a sad occasion for many Malagash in Madagascar, but a time for celebrating. It is believed that the ancestors, like everyone, appreciate a really good party, especially one held in their honor.

A family dresses up the corpse of a family member in new clothes

A family dresses up the corpse of a family member in new clothes (ebaparlikarp)

The rituals of famadihana

Family members come from far and wide to attend the famadihana, sometimes traveling entire days on foot to attend the two-day festivities. When everyone has gathered, the corpses are delicately pulled from the crypt and wrapped in straw floor mats.  Groups of people heave the corpses above their heads and carry them off, before laying them side-by-side on the ground to be cleaned and dressed.  Their dried burial garments are delicately pulled from their corpses and the bodies are dressed in fresh silk garments. Women who are having trouble conceiving will take fragments of an ancestor's old shroud and place them under their mattresses (or even eat them) to induce pregnancy.

Following the dressing of the deceased, a great party is held with music, dancing, and a huge feast among the villagers.  As a band plays at the lively event, family members dance with the bodies. For some, it’s a chance to pass family news to the deceased and ask for their blessings — for others, it’s a time to remember and tell stories of the dead. 

When the festival ends, the bodies must be returned to the tomb as the sun slowly retires beyond the horizon. They are re-buried alongside gifts of money and alcohol and placed upside-down to close the cycle of life and death. After a final ritual cleaning, the tomb is immediately closed - a powerful and emotional moment, embodying all the spiritual richness of the previous days' celebrations.

Famadihana Tradition Threatens Population with Plague

“To limit the possibility of the disease spreading through famadihana, rules in Madagascar dictate that plague victims must be buried in anonymous mausoleums, not in tombs that can be reopened,” reports Newsweek. “But many are reluctant to abandon what is considered a sacred ritual that honors ancestors and brings good fortune to those who practice it.”

The plague is a highly infectious disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, and is endemic to Madagascar. Cases usually occur each year as a seasonal upsurge during the rainy season between September and April. The latest outbreak started in August 2017 with the death of a 31-year-old man from pneumonic plague, who had been traveling in a crowded minibus towards the capital city of Antananarivo. The outbreak expanded rapidly and health officials are struggling to stop the spread.

It is not certain what further measures the government will take, and whether the tradition of Famadihana will be put on hold until the outbreak is brought under control.

Top image: Famadihana reburial, ‘turning of the bones’ in Madagascar (CC by SA 2.0)

By April Holloway

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