Turning of the Bones

Published in New Encounters, South Africa, 2003

In Madagascar all ancestors are honoured and revered. However, two highland clans give special reverence to the dead through famidihana, or the “turning of the bones”.

‘Here he is!’ whispered Claude. ‘That’s the lady’s husband!’ The smartly-dressed woman leaned forward and gently touched her husband as he was borne past her, a corpse wrapped in a once-white shroud which was now stained with the red earth of Madagascar, and visibly rotting. She wiped the tears from her cheeks and smiled. ‘See! She’s happy but also sad. She has not seen him for many years, so she’s pleased to be with him but sad that he is not with her. And she smiles because he is the most important person here.’

The Malagasy people have built a way of life around a way of death. No dwelling for the living should be as substantial and costly as the tombs which house the dead, and the money spent on keeping the ancestors happy is more than any family member would dream of spending on themselves. The manner of honouring the dead varies, with only two highland clans practising famadihana (pronounced famadeean), the turning of the bones – but all ethnic groups that hold on to their traditions respect and fear their dead. Upset an ancestor and you risk bringing misfortune on yourself and your family for years to come. Please him (or her) and good luck will follow. Ancestors, like everyone, appreciate a really good party, especially one held in their honour and involving conspicuous consumption.

The cost of a famadihana is enormous. Just as we might spend lavishly on a wedding, paying for the finest white silk, the best musicians and the most popular caterers, so it is with a famadihana. The finest white silk is needed for the new lamba mena (shroud), a live band has much more status than recorded music and the guests must feast all night on the meat of the precious zebu cattle, kept for such an occasion. It takes years to save up for this event, so no family can afford to hold a famadihana more than once in every decade. Although one particular ancestor will be honoured, the bones of other relatives are usually turned at the same time to ensure that no-one feels left out.

I have been fortunate to attend two famadihana. The first time was unplanned. Across the paddy fields I spotted a colourful, bouncing ball of humanity. ‘What’s happening there?’ I asked our guide. ‘Well, they are dancing. Can you hear the music?’ Straining our ears we could hear some drums beating and the discordant blast from a trumpet. ‘Is it a party?’

‘Yes, it’s a big party for an ancestor. Shall I ask that you come?’ Within minutes we were part of a very sweaty, very drunk, very friendly group of peasants bopping away as the musicians, delighted by their expanded audience, redoubled their efforts to deafen us. Bottles of beer stood on a table and a grey sludge, that we rather hoped was beef, was offered to us with such enthusiasm it was difficult to refuse. Soon the party made their wobbly way across the fields to the tomb, freshly painted in bright colours, with the dead man’s dates painted on the side.

Our guide explained that this body had been flown back from the north of Madagascar, where the man had died and been temporarily buried, to be properly interred in his family tomb. So famadihana is not always a turning of the bones; sometimes it’s the return of the bones. A friend, working in Madagascar in the 60s, reported a local flight where the entire hold was full of corpses being brought home for a grand famadihana. The ancestors had this space to themselves – passengers were expected to carry their suitcases on their knees.

We had to leave this famadihana before the tomb was opened, but my group was formally invited to the second occasion, a much more affluent affair held by one of the leading families of a village some 80km from the capital.

This family were already well into the celebrations when we arrived. There was much talking and laughter, as guests from all over Madagascar and perhaps from overseas met each other to remember their patriarch. Soon a multi-coloured line of people trickled along the narrow dirt path towards the cemetery, parasols bobbing. In their hands, held high above their heads, were the raffia burial mats to be used for carrying the mummified corpses.

There were several tombs for the extended family, but it was easy to identify the one that would be opened: it was larger than the others, built of stone and white marble. Beside it rolls of hand-woven white silk for the new lamba mena were being laid out on the grass, ready to be cut into lengths. We learned that three other ancestors were also to be exhumed that day.

We could hear the musicians long before they appeared over the crest of the hill with their trumpets and drums. The crowd erupted into dancing, and the daughter of the guest-of-honour (or should one say bones-of-honour?) invited us to join in, first with a conga, snaking round the tomb, then with some rock and roll. We were too busy dancing to take photos, but not so the family. They were squatting on top of the tomb with their cameras, photographing their strange visitors.

Finally it was time to open the tomb. The music and dancing stopped and everyone fell silent. The village elder eased open the door and I instinctively moved back, fearful of what I might see. The senior member of the family stepped into the tomb then beckoned me forward. Hesitantly I peeped into the entrance. It had the dark, damp smell of a cellar and I could see the long, grey, shroud-wrapped bodies lying on shelves. Strange, but not unpleasant.

Thanking him, I retreated back to the crowd who murmured in approval. It was proper that a guest should be given this honour. Several family members then entered, carrying a woven raffia mat. They reappeared with the first ancestor, the end of his dirty, frayed shroud peeping out from the curve of the mat. ‘That’s Father Claude,’ our guide, whispered. ‘They keep them all labelled so there are no mixes.’

The body, though mummified, retained its recognisable form inside the tight covering. It was lifted onto the top of the tomb, its head pointing east. A brother and two cousins joined it. Three young men rummaged in plastic supermarket bags for scissors and string and started to parcel up their grandfather, chatting, laughing and smoking cigarettes as they worked. They wrapped him tightly in the precious white silk, tying it securely with nylon string. Then they turned their attention to their great uncle, followed by the two cousins. When all was finished, the freshly-wrapped corpses looked like four giant bandaged fingers.

Silence fell again with the arrival of the priest, dressed in a beautiful white embroidered robe. He joined the widow and her immediate family on top of the tomb to read some prayers. I listened to the familiar rhythm of The Lord’s Prayer, recognisable in Malagasy, and watched the serious expressions on the faces of the celebrants who, a little earlier, had been laughing and chatting, and thought that far from being a bizarre or macabre practice, a famadihana brings an extra dimension to death – sustained love.

In our culture there is no mechanism to ensure that, years after their passing, we continue to remember the dead. Yes, we honour their memory and lay flowers on their graves, but as a solitary act. The bone-turning ceremony is a collective expression of respect and love with all the entire family assembled, probably for the first time since the funeral.

A London-based Malagasy friend returned to Madagascar for the famadihana of her mother. She wrote: ‘It has been a very special day for me. My mother was extremely traditional, spending endless energy and money during her lifetime to keep our customs. It all makes sense now because this famadihana brought so much joy, a strong sense of belonging and identity, and giving a spiritual feeling that death is not an end but an extension into another life, linked somehow with this one. Misaotra ry neny (thank you mum).’ 

© Hilary Bradt

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