To most of us, death is a solemn experience, a time of quiet reflection, sorrow and loss. Not so for the tribes of the Hauts Plateaux, Madagascar, who exhume their dead ancestors in the mind-blowing Famadihana ('turning of the bones') ceremony to re-wrap their bones and give thanks for the blessings they have bestowed from the spirit world. You'd never know they were Catholics.
Want something done – need a new cow or want to get over the flu? Talk to your dead ancestors, say the Malagasy. The spirit world exerts as much influence on the living as the physical universe does. Many are afraid of the dark, as that is when ghosts and goblins come up to wreak havoc. I heard tell of an college-educated Malagasy man who left his bicycle by the side of the road and crawled home on hands and knees because he thought he'd been targeted by a witch. In remote villages, you never see anyone outdoors after sunset.
Family members turn up from far and wide for the Famadihana, which happens only every seven years in any given family. Some travel entire days on foot to attend the two-day festivities. Far from gloomy, it's a great party, more like a wedding than a funeral, with much dancing to accordion music and drinking of gasoline-like rum. And because my host, Mr. Robert, was the head of the family, I was an honored guest and granted carte blanche, which meant I was invited to dance with coffins and even descend into the tomb itself.
The tomb felt damp and did not smell of rot as I'd anticipated, but of earth – more what you'd expect of a root cellar than a grave site. Lit only by candles, the scene was chaotic – young men running in and out of the cramped space in groups of three and four, with raffia mats tucked under their arms to transport the sacks of bones up the tomb's tiny staircase into the daylight. Robert kept gleefully exclaiming, “That’s my grandmother! That’s my uncle and my aunt!” I tripped over a set of bones and jumped backward in horrified embarrassment, hitting my head on the tomb’s low rock ceiling.
Outside, the party raged. People kept offering me shots of rum, bumming cigarettes, and inviting me to dance. Nearby, the immediate relatives of the dead huddled over the remains of their beloved, tenderly stroking their shrouds, singing songs, laughing and crying at the same time, and pouring rum on the decomposing bones in thanks for all the blessings. Then they rewrapped the bones as quickly and matter-of-factly as if they were changing bed linen, wrote the person's name in ball-point pen on the shroud so they could find it again in seven years, rolled the sack up inside a raffia mat, and carried the remains back to the tomb.
Out of nowhere, Robert said to me: "I don't believe in this." Why not? I asked. "Because the Bible says when a person dies, the soul leaves and goes to Paradise." Do others in your family believe? "About half of them, they believe the ancestors can help them." That's it? Then why do you do this? He beamed with delight: "For the party!" And what a party it was.
If you want to attend a Famadihana, it happens exclusively in the Central Highlands between July and September. Ask around. Foreigners are often warmly welcomed, though few Westerners have actually ever seen one. You can. But you'd better be prepared to dance.
John Vlahides travelled to Madagascar on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow his adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.