Ayanna Nahmias, Editor-in-Chief
Last Modified: 22:24 PM EDT, 16 March 2012
AMBOHIMIRARY, Madagascar — When people think of dancing with the dead, they usually picture the New Orleans Carnival pre-Hurricane Katrina. Carnival in that city was an admixture of ghosts, ghouls, scantily clad women and men dancing through aged alleys full of shops selling haints, potions and the occasional voodoo apothecary.
However, in Madagascar, an island in the Indian Ocean off the Coast of East Africa, the inhabitants of the small farming village of Ambohimirary actually dance with their dead. The village is 20 miles west of the nation’s capital, Antananarivo, and it is inhabited by the Malagasy who practice a ritual called famadihana (pronounced fa-ma-dee-an).
This custom entails the exhumation of the shrouded bodies of dead relatives so that they may participate in a celebration which has been organized in their honor. The festival occurs every five, seven, nine or eleven years depending on the family and the amount of resources at their disposal.
The tradition is based on the belief that spirits do not leave their bodies until they completely decompose. Although the Island nation is predominantly Catholic, and the government initially attempted to outlaw the practice, millions of Malagasy still honor their ancestors in this way.
Everyone in the town and the surrounding villages are invited to participate in the three day festival which can cost around $1.2M Malagasy Ariary or $550. It is the responsibility of the families of the deceased to pay for the festivities and provide meals up to three times a day to all the guests who can number in the hundreds.
The fete begins with the bodies being removed from the family crypt. The soiled shrouds are sprinkled with expensive perfume or sparkling wine and then wrapped in woven mats. A marching band then leads a procession of the living, which carries the often cumbersome corpses of the dead to the place designated for the joyous celebration.
The Malagasy who practice famadihana believe that this is an important rite of passage because it honors their ancestors to whom they feel they owe a debt of gratitude. They do not ascribe to the Judeo-Christian belief that man comes from mud. For them, human beings come from the body, and the boundary between life and death is fluid, thus famadihana facilitates spirit travel back and forth across the void.
What makes this custom strange to most Jews, Muslims and even Christians, is the fact that the Malagasy remove and handle the bodies. In Judaism and Islam dead bodies are unclean, and after burial more so and thus should not be touch. In all three faiths the act of removing a dead body from its final resting place is considered desecration.
But every society has its own customs, for instance in India, the Hindus and Buddhist have their unique ceremonial practices in preparing loved ones for their transition.
“In Hinduism, immediately after the death, family members close the mouth and eyes of the deceased, and put the arms straight. Minimal contact with the body is observed because the body is believed to be impure. Then, the body is placed on the floor with the feet pointing towards the south which is the direction of the dead. An oil lamp is lit and placed near the body during a three day wake.
Hindus believe that once the soul sheds the body it prepares to depart immediately on its karmic journey. Because of this, it’s very important to cremate the body as soon as practicable so there is no allure for the soul to linger this side of the world.
For this reason, both Buddhists and Hindus cremate the bodies immediately, preferably on the riverbank of the Ganges, the holiest place on earth for both faiths. The Buddhists prefer immediate dispersal of the ashes over the river, while the Hindus collect the ashes in an urn for disposal in a special year-end ceremony.” (Source: Webhealing & Wikipedia)
But, in Madagascar, this small, island nation off the coast of East Africa, after three days of raucous dancing and eating, the conversations with the corpses conclude, and the families prepare to return the bodies to the crypts. Carefully caressing and redressing the bodies; they bid adieu to their relatives, with the assurance that they will be reunited soon.Follow Nahmias Cipher Report on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report
- Famadihana Death Ritual in Madagascar – Madagascar’s Malagasy people connect and celebrate with their ancestors long after death. (sevenponds.com)
- Ambohimirary Journal: Dead Join the Living in a Family Celebration (nytimes.com)
- 11 fascinating funeral traditions from around the globe (ted.com)
- Some of the More Interesting Funeral Traditions throughout History (hankeringforhistory.com)
- 10 Bizarre Death Rituals from Around the World (io9.com)