Welcome to Madagascar! Finally, we got around to editing and sorting out the tons of material that we collected during our epic summer trip. Considering that it’s Halloween today, let’s start with famadihana, an exhumation ceremony. Let’s get ready to dance with the dead!
What is Famadihana?
In Madagascar, death is not forever. The dead enter the realm of the spirits. They live in trees, in animals, in the air. You shouldn’t point with your finger outstretched, we were told. You may offend the spirits floating about, between one world and another.
Death is not the end. The spirits want to return to Earth, every so often. Buried in family graves, the dead are cold and bored, and they miss their families. Every now and then, it’s time to return. The graves are opened and the dead, wrapped in shrouds, are laid out to rest, to bathe in the sun, while their families party and dance with them. This is famadihana, the turning of the bones.
Famadihana takes place every year between the months of July and October, in the highlands of Madagascar, roughly between Antananarivo and Fianarantsoa. Every day, hundreds of ceremonies take place, especially during the weekend. Finding the exact location is the real challenge. If you speak French or (even better) Malagasy, your best bet would be asking pousse-pousse drivers. Or a travel agency, which in turn is likely to ask pousse-pousse drivers. No one else seems to know where famadihana ceremonies take place.
We set off bright and early on a Sunday morning from Antsirabe with our guide Lanto and Leonard, the pousse-pousse driver who knew the way. He was a wiry man, all sinew and muscles, thanks to a life pulling pousse-pousses around the streets of the city.
We drove north for about an hour then turned off into a field and kept going for a few more kilometers, following vague tracks, that eventually petered down to nothing at all.
On foot, we followed dozens of people, crossing rice paddies and climbing hills to the family tomb. Famadihana is a very important tradition in Madagascar. It only takes place every five to seven years; the right date is set by the tromba, the family shaman. The whole extended family attends; we saw hundreds of people from all walks of life, well-dressed women and bedraggled, barefoot children covered in snot.
Our guide told us that not taking part in your family’s famadihana is considered serious lack of respect. You may be ostracised, and even worse, there will be no room for you in the family tomb. I noticed a single mother with four children, one of them still a baby. Elderly people, eyes cloudy with cataract. Many of them had probably taken out loans from moneylenders, to be there on that day.
Entering the grave
The atmosphere around the tomb was festive and joyous. A brass band played Malagasy and international tunes, the crowd danced around waving rolled-up straw mats and drinking rum traditionnel. Some men dug around the grave entrance, placing mounds of dirt all around it. The tomb was about to be opened. Famadihana was about to begin.
All of a sudden, I felt someone pulling on my arm. Suivez-moi, a woman said. Follow me.
I hesitated. Part of me wanted to enter the tomb. Part of me was terrified to do so. My curiosity won, and I tentatively stepped into the grave. The walls were carved with leaves and flower patterns. A narrow staircase led me to the upper level, where about two dozen corpses were piled, wrapped in musty shrouds.
There was a peculiar smell. It was sweet, but rancid. Earthy, but rotten. The smell of death, of decayed flesh. Nothing, nothing in that place was reminiscent of life. No wonder the dead wanted to leave for a while.
I ran out as fast as I could, and filled my lungs with fresh air.
One by one, the dead were brought out of the tomb. The band kept playing, people dancing around them. First, I climbed on top of the tomb to get a bird’s eye view of the scene. Below, a colourful crowd circled the tomb, carrying the dead on top, wrapped in straw mats, before placing them in the sun. I didn’t want to intrude, to get too close to where the dead were lying. It’s not my place, I’m not family, I thought.
But again, my curiosity prevailed. I tiptoed towards the dead, and was immediately welcomed to the front. I expected tears, screams, despair. Yes, a few people were indeed crying. A young men unwrapped each shroud and kissed the corpses’ faces, before wrapping them again in a clean one and writing their name with a felt-tip pen.
Each of the dead was given a gift. A bottle of perfume was emptied on top of Jeanne, who loved make-up and looking beautiful. Marie-Louise liked beer, and so a young man doused her with a bottle of THB. Lama was sprinkled with rum traditionnel.
Then, everything happened so fast. My memories are confused, a whirlwind of colours, smells and music. The whiff of rum traditionnel on a man’s breath. A toothless woman wanting me to photograph her. A corpse wrapped in a shroud, laid on the side. Much smaller than the others, the corpse of a baby. People dancing, circling the tomb with the dead held aloft, making them dance.
I remember walking back downhill, over hills and across rice paddies, as the tomb was being sealed again. Until next time.
We would like to thank Lanto and Jimmy of Madagascar Tropic Voyage, without whom our famadihana experience wouldn’t have been possible.