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Dancing with the dead in Madagascar

By Laperozy Eric | September 6th 2012 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

By Laperozy Eric

In the village of Ambohimandry, 48km west of Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar, festivities fill the air. People in similar clothes carry a body on their shoulders, singing and dancing.

They are performing a ritual — exhumation or Famadihana in Malagasy language, a kind of funeral ritual custom still respected in the Indian Ocean island.

Every year, the  Ambohimandry villagers exhume the body of their loved one and rebury it closer home in a tomb.

The exhumed body is usually wrapped in new shrouds or silk before it is buried in the family tomb.

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Rakotomalala Raymond Jules, the man whose body is being exhumed in this particular ritual, was a well known businessman in Malagasy. He sold silk abroad.

He was born in 1933 and died in 2005. In the seven years he has been dead, no sad event has happened in the family and for this reason, his descendants in various countries in the world decided to exhume him.

With fanfare befitting a parade, the shrouded body is removed from the family crypt, and sprayed with expensive perfume, others splashed it with sparkling wine. Five brass bands take turns belting out cheerful melodies, as the body is lifted onto the shoulders of family members.

The celebrators then joyously trot about, dancing with the bones of the dead.

“It is good to thank the ancestors in person because we owe them everything,” said Rakotonarivo Henri, 52, an out-of-breath farmer who had just set down his dead grandfather and was moving toward the remains of his aunt.

Feels cold

“We do not come from mud; we come from these bodies.”

Every year, between July and September the villagers perform the Famadihana.

Exhumation of a body is triggered by a dream by a family member who will interpret and inform other family members that a deceased person ‘feels cold’.

The whole family then embarks on exhumation plans.

When Rakotomalala’s family  agreed last year to exhume his remains, they consulted a soothsayer, as is the norm, to determine the date and time for the ceremony.  August 18, 2012 was the auspicious date chosen.

After that, plans were put in place. The family got clearance from the local authority because the ceremony would occupy public place and road.

After consultation with the rest of the kin, the family opened a bank account to raise and save funds towards the event.

“I cannot tell you the exact cost of the event but if we evaluate it, more than 10 million ariary ($5,000 or Sh420,000) was spent,” a son of Rakotomalala told Xinhua. He said the event was expensive because the family invited more than 1,200 people.

“Invitations for these guests were sent two months earlier while all relatives have been informed of the event since last year,” he said.

The D-day was Friday August 17 at 5:00pm local time. The exhumation process of Rakotomalala begins as recommended by the soothsayer. The festivity is preceded by an overnight traditional party. The event is held in a dance hall with traditional music by famous folk singers and dancers.

On the exhumation day, the body is removed from the vault after speeches interspersed by adages and proverbs. People view the body at a yard and contribute some money  before they are served vary be Menaka rice accompanied by very fat pork.

But for Rakotomalala’s exhumation there is also beef and turkey meat, as well as wine and water. The body is then dressed with a new shroud and wrapped with silk as guests are entertained by dancers.

No one is allowed to cry during exhumation ceremony but those who cannot hold back their tears do it discreetly as exhumation is a happy event. Elders tell children about the deceased.

In Malagasy, millions of people who practise the ritual believe, the Famadihana is a time to convey the latest family news to the deceased and ask them for blessings and sagely guidance.
Rakotonarivo says, “I am asking them for good health, and of course if they would help me to accumulate wealth, this is good also.”

  —  Xinhua

Madagascar exhumation culture
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