Oct 11, 2022

Living With the Dead in Madagascar

Different cultures have varying customs of dealing with deceased ancestors. One of the more macabre is popular in Madagascar:

“All cultures have rituals and celebrations to honor the dead—Halloween among them, even if its modern form is mostly about costumes and candy. In Madagascar, the famadihana is a ceremony during which families speak with deceased ancestors. But it involves a very different type of dressing: exhuming and rewrapping ancestors’ remains.

“When a Malagasy person dies, it is traditional for their body to be wrapped in a sheet and placed in a family crypt, usually a large stone structure in the village where the family is from. These crypts will contain dozens of ancestors going back many generations. Once every six or seven years, the family will open the crypt for a famadihana, a day-long ceremony in which some of the ancestors are taken out, rewrapped in new sheets and returned.

“When you get out the ancestors, and you see their remains, you cry. But it is also a moment of happiness. You are happy to see your relatives and you ask for their blessing,” says Nancy Rahaingoarivony, a Malagasy who now lives in Switzerland.

“Physically an ancestor may be dead, but they are still there,” she adds. You talk to them, and introduce to them new members of the family. “The dead are the link between God and the living, and it is very important to respect this culture. The famadihana is when we ask our ancestors for their blessings. For the Malagasy, a successful life is one that has had the blessing of the ancestors and the grace of God.”

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