What Happens During Famadihana Ceremonies in Madagascar?

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Does everything you know about the island nation of Madagascar come from films? You might have been taught about lemurs and other animals that are native to this country. Or maybe you learned from film that Madagascar is in the Indian Ocean off the coast of mainland Africa. But there is much more to this amazing country. 

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One thing movies set in Madagascar are missing is mention of the holiday of Famadihana. This holiday is to help families remember their deceased loved ones. Keep reading to discover what happens during the Famadihana Ceremony.

What’s a Famadihana Ceremony?

The Famadihana or “turning of the bones” ceremony is a time for the inhabitants of Madagascar to celebrate their deceased family members.

The ceremony is part of a several-day celebration that includes special food and dancing. During the festival, the bodies of the dead are taken out of their family crypts. The deceased’s bodies have a special role in the celebration. 

History

Not much is known about the history of Famadihana. It may have started in the early 17th century, but there is a lack of historical records, so its beginnings are a mystery.

Some of the customs of Famadihana are similar to those celebrated in nations in Southeast Asia. But no other country celebrates their deceased quite the same way as Madagascar.

Significance and meaning

Famadihana is a time to celebrate. Many families use it as a way to reconnect with their ancestors. Even though bodies are exhumed, the Famadihana ceremonies are not sad occasions. Tears are discouraged during this holiday.

Although tears are discouraged, Famadihana comes with a measure of fear and trauma. It is not uncommon for those who are in charge of removing the bodies to use alcohol to help assuage their fears. Those removing the bodies may also cover themselves with special lotion designed to protect them from death. 

Some people are afraid of upsetting their ancestors during Famadihana. They are careful to perform the ceremony at a certain time so they don’t offend the spirits of the deceased. 

Those who participate in these ceremonies believe that they can communicate with God through their ancestors. The living use Famadihana as a time to ask their ancestors for guidance and blessing. It is also believed that once a body has been removed from a crypt during Famadihana, the soul is transformed and has special powers.

When it takes place

Famadihana takes place every five or seven years. Usually, a senior family member receives a message from an ancestor through a dream. In the dream, the deceased family member may ask for new clothes or complain about being cold.

Once the senior family member has such a dream, they consult the Zodiac to determine the best day to reopen the family crypt. The date is not chosen based on the death anniversary of the deceased. Only the Zodiac can determine when the crypt should be opened. Once that date is decided plans for the celebration are made, and an invitation is sent to extended family members. It is common for extended families to travel days, often on foot, to attend the festivities. 

ยป MORE: Grief has no expiration date, and neither do your memories. Get your post-loss checklist.

 

What Happens During the Turning of the Bodies?

Just as American funerals vary by region and between families, Famadihana celebrations may differ as well. Here are some of the most common ways the people of Madagascar celebrate. 

The bodies are removed from the family crypt

First, the families gather at the family crypt, and they remove the bodies of their ancestors. If this is the first time that the body has been removed for Famadihana, it is transferred out of the tomb feet first. The old burial clothing is removed, and the bodies are cleaned. 

While the tomb is open, families may place recently deceased loved ones into the ancestral crypt. 

The bodies are wrapped in new silk

Once the bodies have been removed from the crypt, they are cleaned. Then, the bodies are wrapped in new silk burial cloths. Buying the silk may cause a financial strain on the family members, but it is an essential part of the ceremony. Once the bodies have been rewrapped, they are sprayed with perfumes or sprinkled with wine. 

The clothing that is removed from the deceased's body is believed to have special powers. Women who are struggling to become pregnant are told to place pieces of the old burial cloths under their mattresses. This practice is supposed to help improve a woman’s fertility.

The family members dance and celebrate with the bodies of their ancestors

Once the bodies are prepared, live bands begin to play music. The family members dance with the bodies of their deceased family members, often carrying the bodies over their heads as they dance. The atmosphere during this time is celebratory.   

The living family members share important news with the dead, and they ask for help with their problems. They may ask the deceased for health and wealth. While the bodies are exhumed, older family members tell stories about their ancestors to younger members of the family. The family will gather near the bodies to hear these stories. The bodies are stroked 

while these stories are told, as recognition of the individual’s involvement in the story.

The bodies are returned to the crypt

Before the sun sets, the bodies are returned to the crypts. The bodies are carried into the tomb head first. They are then placed face down in the crypt. Gifts of money and alcohol are left with the bodies. 

Some families leave containers of water in the crypt. This water is removed during the next Famadihana. It is often sprinkled around the homes of the family members for luck.

The family serves a feast

At some point during Famadihana, a feast is served to the visitors. No expense is spared for the meal. 

Those participating in the celebration buy new clothes for the event. Famadihana is an expensive event to host. But because this event is an opportunity for families to show their love for each other, they spare no expense. 

The Decline of Famadihana

In recent years, there has been a decline in the number of Famadihana celebrations. There are two main reasons for the decline.

First, it is expensive to host a Famadihana. It sometimes takes years for families to save up enough money for a family crypt. They have to save a lot of money to purchase the space. In Madagascar, it is important to have a nice location for your deceased ancestors. For many people, the family crypt is more important than the family home.

Not only does the family need money for the crypt, but they must also save up enough to buy food for a feast. These feasts can have hundreds of visitors. There is also the expense of purchasing new clothes for the deceased. These silk wraps and gifts for the deceased add to the cost of the event. 

Famadihana is also losing popularity because of opposition to the festival from evangelical Protestants who live in Madagascar. According to this group, Famadihana and its customs go against the tenets of Christianity. Some Christians view the event as a cultural event rather than a spiritual one. 

Final Thoughts

What do you do in memory of your passed family members? Even though you may not have a Famadihana celebration, you may visit the grave of someone you lost. Or there might be other family traditions you observe.  

How do you want to be remembered? Let your family members know your desires by starting an end-of-life plan today. 

Unlike the people of Madagascar, you have a lot of options for your final resting place. You can choose to be buried or cremated. Your remains can be scattered over the ocean or buried beneath a new tree. Research all your options and make your decisions while you still can.

Making an end-of-life plan is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your survivors. It is difficult to make such decisions when you are in mourning. If arrangements have already been made, your family members can spend time after you die thinking about you. They can follow the idea of Famadihana and celebrate your life. 


Sources

  1. Bearak, Barry. “Dead Join the Living in a Family Celebration.” The New York Times. 5 September 2010. www.nytimes.com/2010/09/06/world/africa/06madagascar.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1
  2. Lichtefeld, Chandler. “The Dead Make an Appearance at the Family Reunion.” Anthropological Perspectives on Death. 19 March 2017. scholarblogs.emory.edu/gravematters/2017/03/19/the-dead-make-an-appearance-at-the-family-reunion/
  3. Moses, Sharon K. “A controlled comparative analysis of secondary burial practices: sacred space symbology and the dead.” 1999. scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=9028&context=etd
  4. Munnik, Jo. “In Farmadihana, Madagascar, A Sacred Ritual Unearths the Dead.” CNN Travel. 27 March 2017. www.cnn.com/2016/10/18/travel/madagascar-turning-bones/

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