The Malagasy tribe that unearths its dead every 7 years for sacred reunion ritual

Nduta Waweru June 06, 2018
Famadihana. Photo: Hery Zo Rakotondramanana/Flickr

The Merina tribe of Madagascar is located in the country’s central highlands.

They are one of the African communities that have an elaborate funeral procedure that lasts years after they have buried their dead.

In the sacred ritual known as Famadihana, the Merina remove their dead relatives from the family crypt.

They then remove the old shroud from the dead’s body before covering them again in a fresh shroud. It is important that the deceased body leaves the tomb feet first- a contrast to how we arrive in the world: head first.

Low rectangular tomb in Madagascar

What happens next is a celebration akin to dancing with the dead. The family carries the bodies high up in the air as they go round the tomb a number of times so that the body becomes familiar with its resting place or else it will roam and terrorise the living.

The Merina drink, dance and converse with the dead.

“We wrap the bodies and dance with the corpses while they decompose,” says anthropologist Dr Miora Mamphionona said to the CNN.

However, the bodies need to return to the crypt before the sun sets. The Merina believe that night comes with evil spirits and negative energy and that the sun is their source of life.

As the community believes that the dead are a link between the living and the dead, they always leave money, personal effects and alcohol in the crypt when they return the body.

Photo: By Eric rakotomalala/Wiki CC

The body has to go back in facing either west or south to close the cycle of life and death, thus the process is called ‘the turning of bones’.

This sacred ritual is so important that relatives travel from far and wide to attend. Others would rather live in poverty but save enough money to hold a famadihana for their relatives. Usually, the wealthier the family, the more frequent the famadihana.

After the ritual, most people would pick items that have come into contact with the dead as they consider them lucky charms.

All through the ritual, no one is allowed to be sad or to cry. It is considered as a rejection of the blessing from the ancestors.

So when do they know when to hold a famadiahana?

According to historians, an ancestor would appear in a dream to the most senior member of the family.

“The ancestor appears in the dream and says that he is cold and needs new clothes,” explains historian Andrianahaga Mahery.

The family would then go ahead and ask a traditional astrologer called Ombiasy to say when to open and close the tomb.

Ombiasy. Photo: Wiki CC


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