Famadihana: Dancing with the Dead

08Sep09

1210221-A Famadihana Is A Celebration To Honour Ancestors-Faritanin Antananarivo-1Famadihana is a funerary tradition of the Malagasy people in Madagascar. Known as the turning of the bones, people bring forth the bodies of their ancestors from the family crypts and rewrap them in fresh cloth, then dance with the corpses around the tomb to live music. The Famadihana custom appears to be a custom of somewhat recent origin, perhaps only since the seventeenth century in its present form, although it may be an adaptation of premodern double funeral customs from Southeast Asia. The custom is based upon a belief that the spirits of the dead finally join the world of the ancestors after the body’s complete decomposition and appropriate ceremonies, which may take many years. In Madagascar this became a regular ritual usually once every seven years, and the custom brings together extended families in celebrations of kinship. These ceremonies are costly, mainly because of the expense of providing food for a large number of relatives and guests

The practice of Famadihana is on the decline due to the expense of silk shrouds and opposition from some Christian organizations. Evangelical Protestants discourage the custom, although the Catholic Church no longer objects because it regards Famadihana as purely cultural rather than religious. As one Malagasy man explained to 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 festival represents for the peoples of the central highlands a time of communion with the dead and a means of avoiding or reducing guilt or blame. It is considered a serious transgression not to hold a famadihana when one is financially able to do so.

The Festival

Famadihana-1 LargeThe Famadihana is one of the most popular festivals in Madagascar. It is a traditional festival and is celebrated in both urban and rural areas of the country, though it is especially popular among the tribal communities. The Famadihana is also held to give respect to the dead through the transference of the bones to a permanent dwelling place. The family of the razana saves funds all year to celebrate the festival. The burial tomb is constructed with much care and it is considered to act as the link between the dead and the living. The relatives of the dead dress themselves well and go to the tomb to see the remains of the deceased. Relatives, friends and other near and dear ones are invited to the event. The event is organized to occur every 2 to 7 years.

The festival also consists of animal sacrifices and various traditional forms of celebration. The meat of the slain animal is distributed among the relatives and the friends. There are traditional song and dance performances which are performed by the family members or from the favorites of the razana (the dead). The main motive behind the festival originated from the belief of the local people that the dead return to God and are again reborn. Dead people are highly respected in the local communities as they are considered to be directly related to God.

Video Gallery

1. Famadihana de Tana

2. Series of videos of the event

3. Photos to music

Image Gallery

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1207577124563 Madagaskar Herbegrafenis

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Further Reading

1. Famadihana: a personal experience
2. BBC article on famadihana

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21 Responses to “Famadihana: Dancing with the Dead”

  1. 1 imcrystalclear

    Another great article. You never cease to amaze me with the articles you write. They are all so facinating.

  2. 2 Kimberly

    Very interesting article. Its amazing how different cultures celebrate their deceased. I love that’s its not a sad event, they truly do get a whole family together to celebrate the lives of their ancestors.

  3. 3 Luka

    It’s upsetting that there is objection to this from other religions. People should learn to respect other people and their cultures and leave them in peace. Good article 🙂

    • You are right – and this is something that the Catholic Church receives a lot of flak for. They allow people to retain their practices and are consequently called pagans for it. And as we see in the article above, it is the fundamentalist Christians who oppose the practice – and they are usually the first to say that Catholics are pagans not Christians. Ironic really 🙂

      • 5 LoonyMoon

        My hurrah to Catholic Church! I get a feeling Catholic church is on a progressive track. Did not the Pope add a bunch of socially relevant sins – I think it is a sin now to be obscenely wealthy. (Request:) Can we please have a list on the new types of sins.

  4. 6 Rebecca

    I just found this site linked off of Listverse and I LOVE it. Keep up the good work!!

    Watching the videos above, I was reminded of the festive funerals held in New Orleans. Does anyone know if that tradition was possibly brought here or descended from the practice of The Famadihana by African slaves? That would be an interesting link, wouldn’t it?

    (By the way, when I die – this is how I want my funeral to be. Who needs the mopey grief?)

  5. 7 Zenayda

    Aw, this actually sounds really sweet – I’d never heard of this before. While I personally wouldn’t want to be the person to remove the remains – I love the thought behind it. It’s so happy and celebratory of the person/people who have passed. I don’t understand why people would discriminate against it – it’s a very touching ceremony.

    Also Jamie – why do fundamentalist Christians think that Catholics are pagans? I’d never heard this before and I’m really intrigued now.

    • I think it stems from the mistaken belief that the Church is a continuation of pagan cults from pre-Christianity because of its inclusion of things like incense, prayers to the saints etc. It comes from ignorance because if the people knew their history they would know that those things come from the Jewish priesthood which preceded the Catholic priesthood.

      The Church has, of course, allowed certain aspects of paganism to remain in the communities in which it has been introduced, but this is only in cases where the practice is not contrary to Christianity – that is pretty much the case with the famadihana.

      Here is a website which demonstrates the very ignorance I was referring to above – to a point where they say that Catholic monstrances have the number ‘666’ on them which is patently untrue.

      And here is a website which explains the truth.

      • 9 Zenayda

        Cool, thanks for the links Jamie. It sure makes for an interesting read.

        Thanks again! 🙂

  6. 10 Looser

    well done jfrater but i’ll press AGAIN for longer articles! PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!????

  7. 11 hoshie

    My friend went to Madagascar and stumbled across one of these ceremonies/dances. She said it was one of the most “interesting” things she had ever seen. It kind of freaked her out a bit.

  8. 12 drak

    Interesting article.

    I’ve heard of the practice of second burial (dug out the bones,wrap and rebury them) in southern parts of Borneo island, although I don’t think we practiced that in my place (North Borneo). But the interesting fact is that the Malagasy people of Madagascar are somehow related to people of Southern Borneo.

  9. Даа… Достаточно спорно, поспорил бы с автором…

  10. Thank you very much for your help, this has been a great abatement from the books,

  11. 15 katerinaelaena

    I actually think this is kind of scary. But maybe because the idea of the “dead” being mixed with the “living” Is so unnnatural, in my opinion, that the two worlds should be kept separate. I would REALLY not want to come in contact with any dead people or their remains.

    Very interesting practice, nevertheless!

  12. 16 abesh

    this is quite intresting celebration when someone die even not felling sad but happiness to the dead…..i guess they dont dance just when u die……..

  13. I really can’t believe it. I pray Rooney is ok for the cup!

  14. 18 doan jo

    hi
    this is our malagasy’s culture

    so it’s makes every body poor in thy life

    we make an effort to chage it every days

    and i wish help

  15. I am looking for the song that was popularized in a recent movie dealing with a groug of young adults finding a card on a grave, they were visiting during the night. I couldn’t copy the english words fast enough. They were in a rhyming sequence and intreaguing. Any ideas, please?

  16. Its always advantageous to discover ideas because if discuss for weblog posting. Because I began posting comments for weblog and facing issue associated with the lot rejections. We think your suggestion end up being useful for me personally. We a person know in it’s work for me personally too.

  17. Great post. Yeah, this was a crazy ceremony to attend. I thought it would be morbid, like a funeral but it was happy and joyous and touching. The memory of that child holding her grandmother’s corpse and talking to her still haunts me. It took me a few years to be able to write about it in a way that I could explain my strong feelings to westerners.


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