Madagascar: The dry bones festival

Picture taken in the southern highlands of Madagascar showing re-dressed dry corpses that 'sunbathe' before being re-buried. RIVONALA RAZAFISON|AFRICA REVIEW 

The Festival of dry bones, famadihan-drazana or famadihana, is a tradition dedicated to ancestors and has been practiced in Madagascar for centuries, resisting modern changes in folklore. It is the most widely practiced traditional ‘party’ in the highlands although some groups ignore the ritual.

In Madagascar people widely fear the disconnect with the departed who are believed to join ‘the family of God’ in the afterlife. This ritual, which usually takes place from July to September, therefore serves as a footbridge linking living descendants to their ancestors. Often family members who have settled abroad will come home to join in the spiritual festival and honour the dead.

The Ritual

During the dry bones festival, the corpses are removed from the tombs and re-wrapped in new shrouds, to prevent the deceased from feeling cold in their resting place. This kind of re-dressing takes place after dreams of the departed are recounted by some of the members of the family and thanks given for the blessings they have bestowed from the spirit world.

The corpses are moved out from the burial places and re-wrapped publicly on the thighs of the zana-drazana (children of ancestors) before being placed on new mats to ‘sunbathe’ for a while.

Banned tears
What happens during the event is the opposite of the burial ceremony. It is a joyous occasion. Tears are banned and any ‘sensitive’ people are not to look at the exposed corpses. Weeping at a dry bones event is seen as a rejection of blessings from the ancestors.

Before the re-dressed bones are put back to their respective burial places, they are carried several times around the tomb. This is to make the souls of the departed familiar with their eternal residence, otherwise there are beliefs that they may roam and terrorise the villagers afterwards.

At the end of the ceremony, those in attendance make a dash for things that were in contact with the dry bones during the process. Coffins, mats, and tents become objects of impulsive battle, each small fragment is carried home.

This is also the time to reunite deceased family members into a single family tomb. According to Malagasy belief, being buried separately is a terrible fate.

Grouping can occur within the same shrouds of dry bones belonging to males (fathers with brothers or sons), females (mothers with sisters or daughters), or husbands with their wives. However, dry bones of males are never suitable to be grouped with those of sisters or daughters.

Popular event
Officially invited or not, neighbours will come running to join in the event and offer the sao-drazana, the ancestors’ thanksgiving. This is a symbolic money contribution, accompanied by a bottle of alcohol, to show their social solidarity.

It is a popular event which results in excessive music, dance parties, performances, and a general ‘booze-up’ for a few days.

But the feast is never complete without the very appreciated customary vary be menaka, literally rice with much oil. These are dishes of cooked rice, well-done meat from fattened zebus (cattle), pigs or chickens, and sometimes fish.

The tradition becomes an expensive ritual for groups organising it. Local small-scale peasants take advantage of this by selling their products and zebu traders will even double their prices as the festival season approaches. Even the rental of ‘nice clothes’ becomes a lucrative industry!

Concerns are being raised over the survival of this tradition.

Amid the global economic crisis, incomes are no longer what they used to be and this is compounded by the national crisis. Furthermore, Madagascar has a predominantly Christian population and more and more Christian leaders are voicing their belief that the dry bones festival is an expression of idolatry and paganism.

In carrying out this ritual, people believe they are protected from the ancestors’ anger which may trigger poverty, early death and other misfortunes. In taking care of the dead, people feel honoured and hope for good fortune. Only time will tell whether these beliefs can hold their own.

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