Famadihana: A ritual in Madagascar where people dance with the dead.

Famadihana is a bizarre funerary ritual in Madagascar during which people dig out the bodies of their dead and dance with them.

Among many African tribes and in some other parts of the world, there is a strong reverence for the dead, or ancestors as they are usually referred to. This veneration stems from a belief that the departed ones acts as intermediaries between the living and the supreme being, and are capable of bringing good fortune to the family or community if they are well entreated.

Family members carrying their dead

Many cultures around the world practice funeral rituals that are radically different from Western concepts of death and burial. While some of these rituals may seem unusual, they are a valuable cultural heritage that helps historians, anthropologists, and philosophers to untangle the mysteries of the human race and its numerous belief systems.

A curious funerary ritual named “Famadihana” is practiced by the Malagasy people, an ethnic group that forms nearly the entire population of the giant African island of Madagascar. During the Famadihana, which roughly translates to “the turning of the bones”, the Malagasy people bring the bodies of their ancestors out of their crypts or dig them out of their graves and rewrap them in fresh cloth.

After the bodies are rewrapped, the families carry the bodies through the streets and dance with them accompanied by live music. Animals are sacrificed during the ritual and the meat is distributed to guests and family members, and the community elders explain the importance of the ritual to the younger generations of the Malagasy people.

History of Famadihana

Famadihana appears to be a custom of somewhat recent origin, perhaps only since the 17th century in its present form, although it may be an adaptation of premodern 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, which may take many years. In Madagascar this became a regular ritual usually once every seven years, and the custom brings together extended families in celebrations of kinship, sometimes even those with troubled relations. 

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of Famadihana is on the decline due to the expense of silk shrouds and belief by some Malagasy that the practice is outdated.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.”

References:
Famadihana History Wikipedia/BCC
The Vintage News: Domagoj Valjak
Photo Credits: musingsofajunglequeen.wordpress.com

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