Antananarivo, Madagascar

 

Written by Jenny Goldade

 

Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.

 

But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.

 

This article looks at Madagascar funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Amish funeral traditions and ancient Tibetan funeral traditions, among others.

 

Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.

 

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Madagascar Death Beliefs

About half of the Madagascar population practices traditional religions, with 41% of the population practicing Christianity. The link between the living and the dead is a common belief among the Malagasy people. The spirit world is just as important as the physical world. Spirits join their ancestors’ world but remain until the body decomposes and the turning of the bones ritual takes place.

 

Turning of the Bones Ritual

The Catholic Church didn’t always approve of this ritual, but now they consider it a cultural tradition rather than religious. The turning of the bones ritual, or Famadiahna, is a celebration and act of love and respect for the dead. Usually, around every seven years, the ritual occurs. It’s like a family reunion as it brings the family together to honor the deceased.

 

Famadiahna also is a time of celebration and laughter rather than mourning. Families get the bodies from the tomb, remove the old silk, and rewrap them in fresh silk. Then, they hold them in the air while dancing around the tomb. The celebration includes music, dancing, food, drinks, and telling stories about the deceased. Typical meals served are stews and soups, zebu meat, sweets, rum, as well as other food and drinks.

 

After sunset, the bodies are returned to their tombs with funeral gifts such as money or alcohol. The bodies are put face down to close the cycle of life and death. There is a ritual cleaning and then the tomb is sealed, which is an emotional moment for the family.

 

The Madagascar Funeral Today

The turning of the bones ritual of a Madagascar funeral is not as popular today. It’s only been around since the 17th century, but some Malagasy people think the tradition is outdated. The celebration also is too expensive for many families, since the silk shrouds and tombs aren’t cheap. Families may save up money for several years to build a family crypt. They believe in spending money on their ancestors and their tombs rather than on themselves and their homes.