Brad gets a rare invitation into one of the world’s most bizarre ceremonies, Famadihana or Turning of the Bones in Madagascar and finds himself digging up corpses from the family’s graveyard. The surprising meaning behind it still haunts him…
Tonight We Dance with the Dead
The village elder smiles at me curiously, his leathery hands nudge a plastic mouthwash bottle of homemade rum toward me. I cringe as the amber liquid burns my throat and the fumes fill my nasal cavity, temporarily numbing my anxiety about what comes next. The weathered shovel I hold creaks with my tightening grip. I wonder what I have gotten myself into. From here, I go with the village down the lonely path to dig up his family’s corpses from the cemetery, some still ‘wet,’ and parade them around town. When I first heard about this seemingly macabre ceremony in the highlands of Madagascar, I was immediately intrigued. I’m not sure what dark fascination I have with a ceremony called Famadihana, or Turning of the Bones, where local villagers exhume the skeletons of their elders to dance with. I search unsuccessfully for a justifiable motive. Perhaps I was seeking a simple thrill or maybe voyeurism fuels my morbid fixation on this phenomenon.
Earlier that morning, on our way to the ceremony, Njara, my college-educated driver, tells me, “They have never allowed a white person to attend this ceremony and emotions are high for this event. We will need to be very delicate in our approach so we don’t incite hostilities.” The look of concern in his eyes stirs my inner doubt. “…they say that the dead can sometimes cross back over into the living world. And during this ceremony, the souls of their ancestors can rejoin the living to indulge once again in worldly desires. It is so taboo for people our age, who prefer to avoid black magic, so the practice is dying out.” He says. “Anyways, this ceremony only occurs every seven years and is restricted to the immediate family so they may not let us attend.” We buy homemade “Rhum” to give them as a token of appreciation in the hopes they’ll let us attend.
The Drunken Mob
We pull off the road at a tiny village. The whole town, all related in some way, is assembled outside the largest of the two-story mud-brick shacks, chanting in anticipation of the procession from the city. Njara announces that the elders have asked to meet me. My heart beats wildly as I focus intently on portraying respectfulness; my hands shake noticeably as I humbly offer the gifts. The elders look me over and the debate quickly becomes heated. The patriarch of the village, an old man with distinguished wrinkles and clouded eyes, darts toward me, snaps up the rum from my hands and slips into the dark entry of the house. I’m in. The family members slowly overcome their curiosity and introduce themselves.
The Celebration Begins
We march down the pitted cattle path away from town.. We await the sign from the astrologer that the fabric between both worlds is thin enough that the exhumation can begin. A growing curiosity swells around me as more and more villagers seek out Njara to ask him questions about me. The old man approaches me showing deep concern. He tells Njara that I appear remorseful which is sending the wrong signals and arousing suspicion. He tells me I should act happy and joyous; that this is a celebratory event and I look like I am attending a funeral. I fear my uninformed presence is a mockery to the family The crowd dances tirelessly to the clumsy yet hypnotic melody of the band, a ragtag group of eight men swaggering around in matching uniforms. Their dented and tarnished brass instruments are reminiscent of the faded splendor of the long abandoned French ‘culturalization’ of natives on this island. A vendor has wheeled her wooden cart and tattered umbrella from far away to sell sodas and cigarettes.
The Crypt is Opened
The crowd goes silent. Suddenly, trumpets sound an impending climax. The old man leaps on top of the family tomb and announces the digging will begin. The crowd ignites, encircling the tomb, chanting rhythmically. The men shovel furiously. The old man pushes his relatives aside and hands me a shovel, insisting I participate.
Once the hole is big enough, the door to the underworld is smashed and collapses into pieces. The crowd gasps collectively. I back away gingerly. The old man soon finds me, grabbing my hand and insisting I go inside with him. I glance at Njara, seeking permission. He nods suspiciously but issues me grave warning, “Whatever you do, don’t touch the bodies.” We crawl on hands and knees through the tiny opening of the catacomb to a small room and find mummies on stone benches with their caramelized bones poking through holes in their garments. Flickering candlelight illuminates the yellow stains from seeping body fluids. A sour, earthy smell of decay permeates the tiny room. The old man introduces me to each of his ancestors by name as he pats the dust from their corpses. He insists I feel the decaying body of his mother on my right who has just died a few weeks ago. I place my hand on her chest and close my eyes as he begins to chant. The hair on my neck stands up as a strange feeling engulfs me, dizzy and scared; I lunge toward the fresh air to avoid fainting.
One by one, the corpses are delicately pulled from the tomb and wrapped in straw floor mats like burritos. With several pushes, a group heaves a corpse above their heads and carries it off. They are laid side-by-side on the flat ground to be cleaned and dressed, the names are written in faded black marker to tell them apart. Their dried burial garments are delicately pulled from their corpses like crispy skin from chicken wings to avoid taking too much flesh. The bodies are dressed in fresh silk garments and individually whisked off by awaiting family members.
The same corpse I touched in the crypt is now in her granddaughter’s arms, dancing in circles. She holds her grandmother delicately, crying tears of happiness and talking about her progress in school. In that moment, I heard a voice answer the granddaughter’s call that I still cannot explain. To this day, I dream of that moment. That voice is hard to forget. My heart sinks as I realize how real this is to her. She passes the mummy to the hands of an awaiting woman who begins to cry with happiness. The young girl refocuses her attention on a game her friends are playing and is soon laughing and joking again.
As the sun slowly retires beyond the horizon, the bodies are once again laid to rest but upside-down to close the cycle of life and death. The young always return home to honor their origins here at this earthen hill that embodies their ancestry. I feel a deep connection with this family now that only comes from sharing the most intimate experiences. I am eternally grateful to them for opening their doors and my eyes to such a beautiful practice. It is the most amazing way of respecting the dead that I have ever experienced. I came expecting the most macabre of ceremonies but instead found an extreme form of adoration for loved ones that will forever change how I view life and death. My enlightenment feels bittersweet as I realize my own aversions still prevent me from wanting to visit my loved ones at their graves and the void this creates in my life. I don’t have the stomach for facing death. I stubbornly prefer to bury and forget; somehow thinking this will satisfy desire to remember the way they were. I’ve found more happiness in death than I could have ever imagined.
My Craziest Stories:
Want to read my best travel stories? Here are some good ones:
- Madain Saleh Saudi Arabia: Hitchhiking to Petra’s twin city
- Dancing with Corpses: Famadihana- Turning of the Bones in Madagascar: The hidden meaning behind one of the most bizarre ceremonies will surprise you
- The Secret Lives of Sea Gypsies: My personal experience living with the world’s best divers on the fringes of civilization
- Volcano Boarding Nicaragua: The extreme sport for the slightly insane?
- 5 Secret Temples to Photograph the Bagan Sunrise
Source: Personal interviews, detailed observations and Wikipedia