18 Key Facts About Famadihana, Madagascar’s Reburial Tradition

SharePinEmailFamadihana, the funerary tradition of the people of Madagascar, is steeped in mystery. Also known as the ‘Turning of the Bones’ the tradition involves the people of Madagascar digging up the corpses of loved ones as an act of respect and love for their ancestors. They rewrap the corpses in silk cloth and dance with…

Famadihana, the funerary tradition of the people of Madagascar, is steeped in mystery. Also known as the ‘Turning of the Bones’ the tradition involves the people of Madagascar digging up the corpses of loved ones as an act of respect and love for their ancestors.

They rewrap the corpses in silk cloth and dance with them before returning them to their graves. The practice typically takes place on high plateaus in the region.

Sounds intriguing, if not a little eerie. Here we look at some fascinating facts about Famadihana.

Famadihana’s Origin is Somewhat Recent

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Famadihana in its present form appears to date back to the 17th century. It is based on the belief that the spirits of the dead would be united with their ancestors only once the body had completely decomposed and after several ceremonies. This ritual typically takes place every five to seven years.

The Eating of the Dead’s Clothes for Fertility

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According to tradition, the old burial silks of revered loved ones retain power. Women who are having difficulty conceiving cut off a piece of the material and either place it under their pillow or eat it.

The Catholic Church No Longer Objects to the Practice

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Regarding Famadihana as cultural rather than religious, the Catholic Church no longer objects to the practice.

The Entire Family Unite and Join in the Ceremonies

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Similar to Easter and Christmas in Western civilizations, in Madagascar the Famadihana tradition sees the whole family join the ceremonies.  As one man from Madagascar told 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.”

The Practice is in Decline

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Famadihana is now in decline in Madagascar, due in part to the cost of silk shrouds. Many in the country also believe the tradition is outdated and is not fit for modern society.

Connections To a Pneumonic Plague

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Another reason for the decline of Famadihana is that it is believed to have been connected to a pneumonic plague that broke out in the region in 2017. The plague killed more than 100 people and officials said that the ritual could risk further spread of the disease. At the time, Willy Randriamarotia, the chief of staff in Madagascar’s health ministry, told the Agence France-Presse (AFP), an international news organization: “If a person dies of pneumonic plague and is then interred in a tomb that is subsequently opened for a Famadihana, the bacteria can still be transmitted and could contaminate whoever handles the body.”

Madagascar Government Prevents Bodies of Plague Victims From Being Exhumed

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In the wake of the plague, the government of Madagascar issued legislation that prevented the bodies of plague victims from being dug up. But reports in local media stated that there had been incidents of such bodies being secretly exhumed for Famadihana.

Upon Death, You Become More Powerful

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The Merina people believe that you become more powerful when you die than you are in mortal existence.

The Dead Are Treated with Burial Spices and Perfumes

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The ritual begins with the dead ancestors being pulled from the tomb. The body is then treated with burial spices and expensive perfumes before being wrapped in a silk burial shroud.

People of Madagascar Believe Their Ancestors Watch Over the Family

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In Madagascar, there is a belief that the dead act as intercessors with God, and rather than God granting prayers, it’s the deceased who watch over their loved ones.

Selfies Are Taken with the Dead

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Not exactly your usual holiday selfie, this ritual involves family members taking selfies with their exhumed ancestors.

Wealthier Classes Throw Famadihana Parties More Often

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There is a rigid class structure in Madagascar, and it is generally the higher classes with more wealth and status who throw more Famadihana parties. Whenever they are financially capable of doing so, families are expected to host Famadihana celebrations.

They Do Not Believe in Heaven or Hell

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Different ethnic groups in Madagascar blend Christianity with traditional beliefs. They do not however believe that there is a heaven or hell.

Your Soul is Traded for a Different One Upon Death

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Merinas also believes that there are different types of souls. A soul in mortal existence is known as a fanahy and this is what determines a person’s characteristics and behavior. After death, one’s fanahy is replaced by the ambiroa. The ambiroa is not a ghost but an essence that not only permeates the tomb but also the landscapes that surround it. The ambiroa is summoned from the landscape and back to its original body during the ceremony.

A Lot of Money Is Spent on The Tomb

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The family that is hosting the Famadihana will spend a tremendous amount of money on the tomb and the celebrations. As one Merina told CNN: “People will pay more for their tomb than their houses because it represents their identity.”

Bread is Forbidden at a Famadihana Celebration

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Beef and rice are the staple food in Madagascar and are consumed at a Famadihana party, alongside fruit, yogurt, and soda, with the occasional beer. Bread however is forbidden, alongside pastries and crepes.

A Famadihana Celebration is Similar to the Mardi Gras

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The color, flamboyance, and jubilation of the Mardi Gras are replicated at a Famadihana celebration. Music is played, dancing occurs, and the deceased is carried above the heads of their family and paraded around.

Evangelists Oppose the Famadihana Ritual

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While the Catholic Church is nonchalant about the tradition, evangelists are opposed to it. Early missionaries in Madagascar went as far as trying to stop the rituals from taking place. Today, a growing number of evangelical Christians are turning their back on Famadihana.

Death is Celebrated

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Perhaps the most fascinating part of the Famadihana ritual is that it celebrates death and the dead. Merina people not only make peace with the dead but they celebrate it, meaning it is not something to be feared as it is in many Western civilizations.

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