It was a cloudy morning, but the sunbeams slowly found their way through the clouds and lit up the magnificent landscape with small mountains and villages scattered all over. We were on our way to a famadihana, which is a death ritual where the family take out their ancestors bones from the family tomb, re-wrap them in silk, dance with them and finally re-bury them! This death ritual is performed by the Merina and Betsileo people in Madagascar. We were excited and curious, knowing that within hours we would experience this ancient tradition.
This famadihana was held in a village called Itavo, 12 km outside the town of Antsirabe. Antsirabe is the third biggest town in Madagascar where the Merina people have their origin. But this famadihana was not our first one. In fact it was our fourth Famadihana. So why more than one? First of all we had to investigate similarities amongst the events. Do they always dance with they ancestors? How long does a famadihana last? Do they play music at all the famadihanas? Secondly, this is a photographic project and Klaus need to do several famadihanas to capture just the right moment with his camera.
Full of excitement we tramped the pedals on our mountain bikes towards our fourth famadihana. Our guide told us that the tomb should lie on a hillside and that there would be many people.
As always this was a hard trip. When going to famadihanas we sometimes had to bike 30 km out, work for 6-7 hours, and then bike back again. We are talking about either dirt roads full of holes, tiny sandy paths that I would consider being intermediate mountain bike trails or even finding our way thru the rice fields. Heading home has often been in complete darkness, since there is no electricity outside major cities. Luckily most famadihanas are held in daylight.
At our third Famadihana we had to take a packed minibus for 3 hours and thereafter trekking in the mountains for 4 hours in the burning sun and at an altitude of 2000 meters. At dusk we arrived in a small village with clay houses on the countryside far away from everything. But the pre-party for the next days famadihana had already begun. A local DJ played and his equitment was powered by a generator. The music was a blend of Malagasy pop tunes and the buzzing sound from the generator. But the dusty clay dance floor in front of the house was bubbling. Some of the villagers had been drinking tokagash and the smell of that was unbearable. Tokagash is a locally brewed alcoholic drink made from sugarcanes and cactus.
Acceptance by the family
At one famadihana we arrived on our mountain bikes in the middle of the family’s courtyard greeted by kids, chickens and the elders of the family. At the first glimpse of us the family thought that we were from France and this particular family disliked the French people as a reaction on the colonization dating back to 1850’s. Our guide rapidly explained that we were from Denmark and that we were very interested in the culture of Madagascar. The men broke out in a most welcoming smile and we were immediately invited to have a meal. We have found out that it is custom that everybody who are attending a famadihana must have a meal. Which is also one of the reasons why it is so expensive to host a famadihana. A meal consists of a big portion of rice with one or two pieces of zébu (the local and African type of cow). We have seen up to 300 people attending a famadihana, so we are talking a lot of rice and at least one zébu must be offered. It is also custom that the head of family will make a short speech welcoming the guests and that everybody share some togagash which can get an elephant drunk within a split-second. Which occasionally also happened to Klaus.
At the tomb
All famadihanas are performed in its own way. At one famadihana over 300 people were attending the celebration of the ancestors and at another one they took out more than 25 bodies from the tomb. First the elders of the family climb the tomb and hold a speech and then the ancestors gets rapidly pulled out of the tomb. They are laid on straw mats (raffia) and smell of moist and mold from lying in the tomb. Some of the bodies are not even 7 years old. The bodies are laid in rows and the family carefully re-wrap them in new silk shrouds. The silk is extremely costly which is one of the reasons why a famadihana is so expensive and why the tradition is fading. Most of the bodies are wrapped in shiny white silk and the oldest ancestors are wrapped in bordeaux coloured silk. The wrapping is sealed with ribbons of silk that are tied with knots. We were told that the number of knots indicate how many famadihanas has been held for this particular ancestor.
So what do they mean by “dancing with the bones”? Well, the family members actually dance with their ancestors after re-wrapping them and carefully writing the name of each ancestor on the new silk shroud. At some Famadihanas the family members dance like crazy with their ancestors above their heads. Smiling, crying and yelling while their ancestors gets twisted and bend in the heat of the moment. Imagine being at a heavy metal concert where they do the poco dancing and the stage diver is a dead body! At other famadihanas the family treat the bodies much more carefully and dancing is done before and after carrying the ancestors back into the tomb. The approach to how the rituals are performed seems to always be different from family to family and there is no “right” way.
Sealing the tomb
We have seen families dancing around the tomb with their ancestors 7 times and sometimes just once. And we have seen families just dancing like crazy in front of the tomb with their ancestors over their head. After the dancing the ancestors are put into the tomb again, but in the joy of the remembrance of the ancestors we have seen the families wanting just one more dance before they were put into the grave. Rapidly after the last dance the tomb were closed again and sealed with either clay or cement.