Just when I think I have heard about all of the strangest festivals and traditions around the world, I hear about something else that amazes me. Did you know that it is traditional in Madagascar to take the bones out of the family crypt and dance with the corpses of your ancestors?
This event sounds a little bit scary, but it’s actually quite sweet. It’s a ritual that is meant to symbolise respect for deceased ancestors. The traditional festival is known as the Famadihana and it is celebrated in urban and rural areas all over the country of Madagascar. It is most popular among the tribal communities, who keep their ancient traditions alive. The Famadihana festival takes place every seven years and it brings together extended families in a meaningful and powerful celebration.
The Famadihana Festival, Madagascar
The people go into the family crypts and carry out the bones of their deceased relatives. They wrap them in fresh cloth and then dance around the tombs with the corpses to live traditional music. This custom dates back to the 17th century and is thought to be an adaptation of double funeral traditions from Southeast Asia, from where Madagascar was first colonised. It is based on a belief that the spirits of the dead do not join the world of the ancestors until their bodies have decomposed completely. Until that time, the spirit still lingers within the body and it is able to communicate with the living.
This practice has declined in recent years, partly due to the discouragement of the tradition by early missionaries and the expense of the silk shrouds. However, it still happens and the Malagasy people believe that it is very important to preserve the ritual. It is a crucial way for them to maintain ties with the dead as well as being a way to bring the entire family together. It is also a time to remember and tell stories about the dead, as well as share family news to relatives that they do not see too often.
At the end of the Famadihana festival the bodies are returned to the tomb and they are re-buried, with gifts of alcohol and money. They are placed upside down in order to close the cycle of life and death and the tomb is ritually cleansed. The tombs that the Malagasy people build for the dead are often more elaborate than the simple homes that they build for the living, as they spend more on making their ancestors happy than they spend on themselves.
Once all of these important rituals are complete, the tomb is closed and not opened again until the following Famadihana festival. If you get a chance to witness this fascinating festival during your travels in Madagascar, it is sure to give you an entirely new perspective on life, death and family.